So you're the governor of Maryland. You've served one term, providing generally sound stewardship through the Great Recession and handily winning re-election over a popular Republican in what was a big year for the GOP almost everywhere else. You're supposedly a progressive Democrat — some even say a liberal one — in one of the bluest of blue states. The state legislature, controlled by the dominant party, is generally friendly to you.
But, with all that, what do you do? Not a whole lot.
On the matter of same-sex marriage, you publicly state a preference for the lesser option of civil unions but pledge to sign the same-sex marriage bill if it reaches your desk. However, you do nothing more than a little last-minute, behind-the-scenes lobbying to get the few votes needed for its passage. When the effort crumbles in the House of Delegates, you sing that "One Maryland" song that evokes groans: "As One Maryland we must work together to respect the dignity of every individual. I remain committed to working with all Marylanders to ensure that rights are protected equally for everyone." What? Where were you when supporters of same-sex marriage needed helping muscling up one or two votes in the House?
You say you oppose the death penalty. You called for its abolition in 2009, but in 2011 you do little or nothing in support of the renewed repeal effort. And despite having the power to do so, you refrain from commuting the sentences of the last five inmates on Maryland's Death Row.
You have the authority to release a convict serving a life sentence or to commute his or her sentence to a term of years, but you've never employed that authority — even in the 50 cases where the Maryland Parole Commission suggested you would be justified in doing so. In the case of Mark Farley Grant, a 43-year-old convicted killer who has been incarcerated since he was 14, you refuse to act on a report from the University of Maryland School of Law (your alma mater) that Mr. Grant was wrongfully convicted. You've had the report "under review" since 2008.
When it comes to the state budget, Democrats in the Maryland Senate have stolen leadership from you, proposing a series of taxes on gasoline, alcohol, cigarettes, millionaires and out-of-state corporations to spare the cuts in education, health services and road repair that you were prepared to make. It's a tough budget year. Nobody likes to pay more in taxes. But, if you're all about "moving Maryland forward," as you've stated over and over again, how can you countenance, for one thing, cuts in education funding? The senators who proposed an alternative budget did so at considerable political risk.
As in the matter of same-sex marriage, the governor of Maryland has played his hand cagily with the budget: He promises not to raise taxes, but should the General Assembly decide to do that, he'll consider signing off. He comes away looking like a fiscal moderate, which is the desired effect, precisely the reputation needed by anyone who aspires to be president.
Such casual reference to Martin O'Malley's ambitions used to be dismissed as way too premature, the idle speculations of a gossipy punditry. But anyone trying to understand Mr. O'Malley and his positions needs to remember that he's only 48 years old, in his second and final term as governor, now serving as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. Despite all denials, the presidency must be among the considered destinations, so his behavior as governor makes sense.
Promoting wind power, pushing for a venture capital fund for Maryland businesses, trying to rein in polluting septic systems — that all looks smart and leafy green on the resume. And being a fiscal moderate from one of the bluest states is a fine suit to wear on the next journey.
But on those other matters mentioned earlier, Mr. O'Malley need be in no hurry. He doesn't have to parole anyone or commute anyone's sentence; it might be the fair and moral thing to do, but he gains nothing politically. Same with the death penalty; he's on the record in opposition, and that's enough. He need not take the lead on same-sex marriage; it might be the fair and moral thing to do, but he probably believes that being overtly pro-gay works against any notions of national office.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is email@example.com.