What is Martin O'Malley thinking?

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. (Photo by Scott Morgan for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. (Photo by Scott Morgan for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On a Friday night two weeks ago, Democrats in Manchester, New Hampshire, packed a half-size banquet room for a party fundraiser. Like everyone else with access to cable TV or the Internet these days, the politicians and activists in the room already knew whom Democrats were going to nominate for president in 2016. So did the national political reporters back in Washington, who had been stalking Hillary Clinton's book signings like little girls lining up to see Queen Elsa at Disneyland, but who didn't even bother making the trip to New Hampshire.

About the only one who didn't seem to know the score was Martin O'Malley, the square-jawed, serious-minded governor of Maryland, who stood at the podium delivering a dry keynote speech on the War of 1812, because this was a Flag Day event, and O'Malley might have gotten a bit carried away with the premise. This was his second New Hampshire speech in six months, and he'd spend the following weekend in Iowa.

O'Malley persists in behaving like a man who is actually running for president. So what exactly does he know or think he knows that the rest of us don't?

In some other presidential cycle, O'Malley's profile would be getting him a serious look. He was just 35 when he won the mayoralty of Baltimore, promising to get control of crime. He went on to win two terms as governor, championing the kinds of policies that make Democratic primary voters swoon. He campaigned early for gay marriage and against the death penalty, raised some taxes to keep revenue flowing to public transportation (while making cuts in other programs) and moved aggressively to lure wind energy to the shore.

As a national politician, O'Malley is very much a work in progress; his oratory can seem wooden and didactic, and he lacks the kind of clear political identity of, say, an Elizabeth Warren. But as past chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, he's made himself a regular spokesman on Sunday shows and raised money for a lot of Democrats who now hold sway in their states. Plenty of nominees have started with less.

O'Malley admits he isn't yet at a "point of clarity" about what his presidential argument might be. He talks a lot about his experience as a big-city mayor, and about how the governing revolution that's swept through cities like Baltimore in the last 15 years is what younger Americans expect from Washington. America, he argues, is becoming more of a giant city, and it needs a kind of uber-mayor who knows how to apply metrics to government services and how to unite disparate communities.

"It's a metropolitan future," O'Malley told me during a conversation after his 1812 speech. (Seriously, don't get him started on the subject.) "We're becoming a more metropolitan people. Our younger people seek closer connection rather than distance. And our leadership, in order to be more effective, has to shake loose from the traditional ways of ideology and bureaucracy and hierarchy, and embrace this new way."

Technocratic arguments have never found much favor with presidential voters, and neither have mayors, for that matter. Then again, the Democratic electorate keeps getting younger and more citified with every election, so O'Malley's urban renaissance idea could just resonate more than you'd think.

The real problem for O'Malley is that this isn't some other presidential cycle it's the Year of Hillary. And, increasingly, the insiders who set such expectations seem to find it irritating that anyone not named Clinton would distract us by running. Take, for instance, a recent column in the Daily Beast by a Republican pollster and cable commentator named Kristen Soltis Anderson, which began this way: "There are not very many Republicans lying awake at night, unable to sleep, trembling with fear at the possibility of President Martin O'Malley."

As evidence for the irrelevance of O'Malley and other potential candidates, Anderson noted that CNN didn't even ask voters about them when it last polled Clinton's chances in 2016. So that's some logic for you. If CNN won't ask voters about O'Malley, then how can voters be expected to take him seriously?

Even among the leading Democrats who do take O'Malley seriously, the mantra is that he's got to be bluffing, putting himself in position just in case Clinton doesn't run. Surely, if she does run, he'll do the only rational thing and stand down.

Those closest to O'Malley, however, are pretty sure he intends to run either way. And though pundits might opine that O'Malley just wants to set himself up for the vice presidency or even for the 2020 election, that's just something the politics-as-fantasy-baseball crowd likes to say it's never why someone actually runs. What emboldens O'Malley, really, is a personal journey that leads him to doubt the lemming-like wisdom of crowds.

O'Malley was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Catholic University in 1982, when, pulled by the notion of generational change, he volunteered to work for a little-known senator named Gary Hart. The Hillary figure that year was former Vice President Walter Mondale, who was assumed to be the nominee, assuming he could survive a modest challenge from the iconic John Glenn. Hart barely registered in the polls.

But in 1984, Hart finished second in Iowa, and a week later he shocked the political world by trouncing Mondale and the rest of the field in New Hampshire. He went on to win every state west of the Mississippi River and might have won the nomination, too, had the so-called super delegates not been looming. (O'Malley went to law school but continued working for Hart, who became his mentor, during Hart's doomed 1988 campaign.)

That 1984 experience was very much in O'Malley's mind when, as a city councilman, he ran for mayor against two better-known, African-American opponents in 1998, in a city where conventional wisdom held that a white man could never be elected.

"I announced mid-June for a September primary," O'Malley recalled, wryly. "When I announced, I was at 7 percent in the polls. The other guys were at 36 and 28 percent, I think." O'Malley won 53 percent of the vote in the primary and 90 percent in the general election.

"So," O'Malley told me, "I'm not terribly intimidated by…" His voice trailed off as he realized his sentence was headed nowhere helpful for him. "I don't know," he said finally. "Things always change in politics."

That may sound like a bland truism, but in fact it's the one crucial fact that only O'Malley seems to be grasping right now. Hart was considered the prohibitive favorite two years before the 1988 campaign and ended up cast aside. Mario Cuomo was thought to be the only viable Democrat in the run-up to the next election. At this point in 2006, the Hillary Clinton figure was none other than… Hillary Clinton. Yes, things change.

You can bet some other Democrats are quietly looking at 2016 and thinking about their own experiences with the unpredictability of political tides. Surely Andrew Cuomo, the second-term governor of New York, remembers the campaign his father decided not to pursue against a popular incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, and how regrettable that decision seemed by the fall of 1992, after Bush's presidency had essentially imploded, and after Democrats had nominated a governor who was far less known and admired.

To this point, though, O'Malley is the only guy willing to do the most visible things a candidate should do if he's serious about being president, rather than just waiting to see if an opening materializes. And for that, he really ought to get a hearing, if nothing else. As the British found out in 1812, the fight's not over until it's been fought.