"None Of It Made Sense": Martin O'Malley's Long Year After Running For President

Martin O'Malley was right. Democrats did want a challenger to Hillary Clinton — it just wasn't him. Now the former Maryland governor has emerged from a long year, is again campaigning for local Democrats, and trying to make sense of what happened in 2016.

Martin O’Malley remembers running for president like this: He is on a train, heading for a bridge. He can see the bridge is giving out. He is shouting and waving and pointing at a “better lane,” he says. “But it’s like I couldn’t get anybody on the train to listen.”

“It was the most frustrating experience I’ve ever had in politics.”

O'Malley was still a young mayor in Baltimore, elected at 36, when he started hearing people say he might one day “go all the way.” Now, at 54, on the other side of that dream, he is at turns resigned to and not yet at peace with the eight months he spent as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. That his 2016 campaign never caught fire, or even much of a spark, is a reality he reasons with in one moment, ticking off outside contributing factors, before adding in the next that, in fact, “None of it made sense.”

“I couldn't not try,” he says in a recent interview over two rounds of Guinness and plantain chips at a Cuban restaurant in Baltimore, the city where he launched his career. “But at the same time it was very frustrating,” he adds. “Really, really frustrating.”

“Thank God I picked the right high office to have that experience.”

It was around this time four years ago that O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, began erecting the “framework” for his presidential bid. And now, like then, he is filling his calendar with party work, helping candidates in special elections (two in Iowa, one in Delaware), and headlining local fundraisers and events (most recently, last weekend, in Iowa). And now, like then, he is toying with the idea of a campaign. (“As for the question of whether I might run for president again in 2020, I just might," he told NBC News.)

But this is not the O’Malley who ran headlong into 2016. More than a year after his dismal finish in Iowa, securing less than 1% in the caucuses against Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, he still carries the frustration of a campaign spent trying and failing to find an “option to open up the lane.” He has a new distaste for the party establishment (“Washington gobbledygook”). And even as he supports local Democrats, trying to carve out his own role as the party centers itself around President Trump, he is without a clear next move for the first time in years.

His hard-charging political operation — a tight cadre of advisers, one or two always by his side in the years before 2016 — is no longer a familiar presence. He travels now with a single aide, a young operative named Ben Chou who ran the campaign's operations team in Iowa. As the only full-time staffer at O'Malley's PAC, O'Say Can You See, Chou helps manage the political work and keep an eye on the budget. (They began their trip to Iowa last weekend on the east coast around 5 a.m., touched down in Des Moines for a full day of events, before turning promptly around the next morning on a 7 a.m. flight.)

O'Malley has made himself widely available as a surrogate, telling officials at the Democratic committees in Washington that he is willing to go anywhere that's helpful.

Mostly, though, he is home with his family in Baltimore or at Boston College Law School, where he teaches a course on the data-driven government and "performance management." The practice of using data to evaluate government and dictate policy is one that O’Malley pioneered as mayor and governor and has described as central to what he once called his “omni-partisan, apolitical” and “not fundamentally ideological” governing philosophy.

Despite a brief effort by aides in 2013 to promote O’Malley as a “performance-driven progressive” with a “brand of results-oriented leadership,” these ideas didn’t become central to his campaign. (Perhaps in part because the tough-on-crime policies and tracking programs that put him on the cover of Esquire as “America’s best young mayor” in 2002 would in 2016 alienate the young voters who have protested the police tactics and sentencing policies that produced one of the world’s largest prison populations.)

Instead, O’Malley launched his campaign under the banner of a “New Leadership” slogan; made an aggressive play to be the most progressive candidate in the race; and became sharply critical of Clinton, a candidate whom he endorsed and campaigned for at length eight years earlier.

As he sees it and this remains a going topic of discussion his problems were more structural. First, there was money. (The Clintons were “formidable,” he says, in “shutting down fundraising potential.”) Second, a climate of “discontent” on which Sanders, he says, had a “monopoly.” And third, the debates. (With only four before the Iowa caucuses, he says, an “unknown” candidate had no chance of “breaking through.”)

His refrain about deciding to run in 2016 despite improbable odds — “I couldn’t not try” — is one he seems to offer less as an explanation than a hard statement of fact.

Supporters at an event in Iowa last weekend were unsure whether to laugh when, after thanking them, O’Malley added flatly: "Seeing as how things turned out [with Trump], I want to thank you for saving my life, because I'd probably be suicidal if I hadn't tried.”

The remark, if not literal, was serious — an urge rooted in part in what friends have described as a genuine belief, affirmed by others along the way, that he could do the job. (It was Bill Clinton, in 2002, who wrote to say, “I won’t be surprised if you go all the way.”)

There was also the memory of the 1984 race. He took a leave from college at 19 to volunteer for Gary Hart, watching him start as an asterisk in the polls and almost pull off an upset. But unlike Hart in New Hampshire, O'Malley's moment in Iowa never came. (Sanders, it turned out, had the moment.) Despite spending the most time, staff, and money there, it was hardly enough. He had just one organizer in Polk County, the state’s largest voting block, an operative in Iowa at the time said. Clinton, by comparison, had 25.

On his trip there last weekend, his third since the election, O’Malley slid back into the rhythms of a candidate, greeting crowds of 40 or so people at most of his events.

He railed against bills moving through the Republican-led state legislature, hand-delivered a check to a state senate candidate, and talked up the winners of Iowa’s two special elections earlier, Jim Lykam (“I don’t just ‘like him,’ I love him!”) and Monica Kurth. O’Malley campaigned for both, a move that has drawn appreciation along with some gentle ribbing from state Democrats. Before speaking at a Lions Club in Johnston, State Senator Rob Hogg and a few others cracked jokes about whether O’Malley was trying to run “for president or governor” — which is to say governor of Iowa.

While party leaders and grassroots activists focus on opposing Trump, O’Malley’s recent efforts make him one of the few Democrats focused more on trying to draw national attention and money to state and local candidates — and to articulate “who we are as Democrats,” as he said in Johnston — than on combating the new administration.

Without that message, he told them, the party risks becoming a “west coast” and “east coast party,” a concern also voiced by officials who worry that Democrats have defined themselves more by their opposition to Trump than a positive policy argument, economic or otherwise. (Clinton’s strategy in the general election, to focus on Trump’s qualifications and character, also left little room for typical contrasts on economic and social policy.)

O’Malley, perhaps, sees that as his lane now.

Over his Guinness in Baltimore, the subject of the party’s ideological divides sends him, suddenly, into monologue, his voice building above the bar — “This is not the time for centrism,” he says, “for mealymouthed manners, for singing Kumbaya!”

He winds back down, pauses, and points at the tape recorder on the table.

“That was pretty good.”

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