Martin O'Malley starts to take his victory lap

Governor could put Maryland on the map of presidential politics

  • Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley participates in a panel discussion during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on August 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley participates in a panel… (Ethan Miller / Getty Images )
August 20, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Don't look now, my fellow Marylanders, but I think the Martin O'Malley victory lap has commenced. The governor, with a year and a half to go in his second and final term, has started telling us all about his impressive tenure.

The governor gave a speech over the weekend that was mostly that — a way of cementing the local narrative about how his pragmatism and competency got us through the worst economic cycle in decades. Like everything else O'Malley does, it's all part of a strategy to enhance his standing as a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

It still sounds far-fetched to many — O'Malley for president, especially with Hillary Clinton in the picture. And let's face it, the country doesn't have a history of looking to Maryland for presidential candidates.

No Maryland governor has been a serious candidate for the White House since Spiro T. Agnew some 40 years ago, and he was only "serious" in the sense that, if something had happened to Richard Nixon — impeachment, death, kidnapping by space invaders — Agnew would have moved from the vice presidency to the presidency.

But, of course, that didn't happen.

Agnew blew his big chance to take bribes in the Oval Office — instead of limiting the practice to the vice president's suite — by leaving a trail of kickbacks dating to his time as Baltimore County executive in the 1960s. The feds finally caught up to him in 1973. Agnew came back to Baltimore, pleaded no-contest to tax evasion, resigned the vice presidency, had supper at Sabatino's and left us for good.

When he lost Agnew as vice president, Nixon lost his insurance policy against impeachment or worse. "No assassin in his right mind would kill me," Nixon was heard to say on one of the famous Watergate-era recordings. "They know if they did, they would wind up with Agnew!"

So there's a fine epitaph: "Spiro T. Agnew: Nixon considered him worse than Nixon."

The other Maryland governor who came close to the presidency was Albert C. Ritchie, a long-serving, widely respected but reserved fellow who left his wife to live with his mother. Ritchie was mentioned as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1924 because of his public opposition to Prohibition. He was an actual candidate in 1932 but lost out to Franklin Roosevelt. FDR offered Ritchie the vice presidency, but Ritchie turned him down, saying he'd rather be Maryland governor than vice president. (And in Maryland, of course, he'd be closer to his mommy.)

Now back to O'Malley.

But before we go any further, I'd like to extend gratitude, as a colleague and reader, to the Baltimore Sun's veteran state government and General Assembly reporter, Michael Dresser. He actually went to Ocean City and listened to every word of O'Malley's speech to the Maryland Association of Counties. (I tried to read the speech but wiped out in a wave of ennui.)

Dresser, on the other hand, took notes and came away with this conclusion:

"In an annual speech sometimes used to outline future goals, Gov Martin O'Malley on Saturday revealed few plans for his remaining year and a half in office. Instead, he offered a positive assessment of the state of Maryland."

The governor listed all kinds of accomplishments through the recession and since, speaking in the first-person plural, inserting "we" where he actually meant "I," the kind of rhetorical contrivance that so often makes O'Malley sound condescending.

"Instead of racing to the bottom, we raced to the top," O'Malley said. "Instead of ignoring the bad math of prior fiscal choices, we corrected it. Before the recession hit, we put our own house in order: Instead of weakening our workforce, we strengthened it. Instead of capping middle-class opportunity, we invested to expand it. Instead of short-changing our children's education, we improved it. We lowered income taxes for 86 percent of Marylanders."

Life is better here, O'Malley insisted. It's a business-friendly state, a home to entrepreneurs.

"By strengthening our workforce and advancing innovation," he said, "we recovered 99 percent of jobs lost in the recession."

Sounds good, doesn't it?

(Of course, the Maryland unemployment rate in December 2006, the month before O'Malley took office, was 3.8 percent. On Monday, the rate was reported at 7.1 percent. But I digress.)

The MACO speech was the governor's way of articulating a narrative that, he hopes, can hold up in the years ahead: a competent, if not charismatic, leader in tough economic times. Or maybe it was O'Malley's way of saying, "My job is done here."

Like him or not, the Maryland governor is an ambitious fellow — savvy, cynical, yet patient enough to be a player on the national stage. He's made a lot of smart moves and built a platform from which to launch a candidacy. He could put Maryland on the map of presidential politics.

So the victory lap has commenced. Get used to it. We're going to be hearing a lot more of the Martin O'Malley story as he finishes his term and prepares for the next big thing.

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