Is Martin O'Malley running for president in 2016? Should he?
The answer to both questions seems the same: Sort of.
Maryland's governor will finish his second term in January, the same week he turns 52. After serving as Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, his career in elective politics may end at a very young age unless he runs for the presidency.
The major obstacle in Mr. O'Malley's path to the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is Hillary Clinton. In fact, as the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination, she's every Democratic hopeful's obstacle. When the Sun polled Maryland Democrats in February, they preferred Ms. Clinton to their own governor by a 10-to-1 margin, 59 percent to 6 percent.
And don't bet on Ms. Clinton repeating in 2016 the strategic and tactical errors that ruined her 2008 presidential bid. Fool her once, shame on her. Fool her twice — not a chance. If she runs, she wins.
Ms. Clinton has yet to declare her candidacy, and maybe she'll opt not to run. Presuming she does seek the nomination, however, she has a small problem: She needs to actually beat somebody to claim it.
Victory by acclimation will be less satisfying for the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state than vanquishing a decent challenger. A contested primary is in her best interest.
Enter Mr. O'Malley, the Larry Holmes of 2016. If he's smart, Maryland's governor will declare his candidacy later this year — but before Ms. Clinton does — and then start raising money and a few eyebrows by serving as her sparring partner-to-be. Just as Muhammad Ali sharpened his boxing skills by sparring with Mr. Holmes, Mr. O'Malley can help Ms. Clinton stay sharp as she prepares for the general election.
He is ideally suited to the task.
Remember: Mr. O'Malley endorsed Ms. Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, a decision that partly insulates him from backlash from Camp Hillary. He's wonky in a way that will make the former first lady — who in 2008 was the policy steak to Mr. Obama's rhetorical sizzle — look dynamic. His lack of foreign policy experience will accentuate her international and diplomatic cred.
And with all the administrative problems of the Obamacare rollout, both nationally and here in Maryland, Mr. O'Malley is more likely to be on the defensive about health care than she. (Hard to believe the Hillarycare disaster was more than two decades ago, isn't it?)
Which is not to suggest Mr. O'Malley's job is to take an embarrassing political dive. He's stronger than Ms. Clinton on issues related to economic populism and inequality, which may force her to talk about these issues more cogently.
What possible benefit is there for Mr. O'Malley to play the role of primary sparring partner? That's pretty obvious: the vice presidential slot on the Clinton ticket.
He is ideally suited for that role, too.
If she runs and wins the nomination, Ms. Clinton could select a woman or racial minority to be her running mate. But the safe move is probably to choose a white male. Mr. O'Malley qualifies, and he would balance the ticket in other ways: Younger, a governor, a Catholic. Progressives will also be cheered by Mr. O'Malley's successful efforts to move Maryland leftward on issues ranging from gay marriage to college tuition to the death penalty.
Mr. O'Malley doesn't put any additional states into play for the Democrats: One of only three states where Mr. Obama's 2012 winning margin exceeded that of 2008, Maryland is already solidly Democratic. But so what? Most states are so reliably blue or red that vice presidential candidates are no longer expected to deliver their states' electors anyway. (Mitt Romney didn't carry Paul Ryan's Wisconsin, which not long ago was a swing state — third closest margin in 2000, closest in 2004.)
Mr. O'Malley wowed nobody with his address to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. If he wants to move to the next level, he must prove he can deliver a rousing speech, raise gobs of cash and artfully skewer the Republicans. Or he could quietly retire to private life.
Your move, Governor.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schaller67.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.