Generic man Martin O’Malley ended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last night. The Iowa caucus was rough on the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor: Once poll-workers sorted out the caucus-goers who thought they were standing in line to get their photo taken with “that guy from, uh, like, NCIS or one of the CSIs or whatever,” he came away with a measly one percent of the vote, comprising kindly geriatrics whom he reminded of their grandson. Don’t you think he looks like my Timmy?
Why was he running for president? The simple impulse to ask this about Martin O’Malley is weird in the first place. For generations, the machines of both parties have looked for guys pretty much exactly like him—tall, unthreateningly good-looking ex-mayor and/or -governor guys from valuable states with responsible hair and good teeth—to get behind in elections. That is the reason for a guy like him to run for president; it is the reason for a guy like him to run for governor, and mayor, and city council, and chairman of the PTA, too. It is the entire promise of being a guy like him: That being a guy like Martin O’Malley is a 99-yard head start in the hundred-yard-dash of American politics. The deal has been, pretty much forever, that if a guy like Martin O’Malley can get out of bed and make himself presentable, someone, somewhere, would actively seek him out with a dump truck of power and money and status. The answer to the question, “Why was Martin O’Malley running for president?” is, or has always been, “Why would Martin O’Malley not run for president?”
This is not to say that O’Malley lacked a platform, beyond the idea that singing folk songs in the Oval Office might be cool. He had one! Unfortunately, it was as generic as everything else about him. Some positions that are not much different from Hillary Clinton’s, some positions that also are not much different from Hillary Clinton’s but are phrased maybe a little bit more like how Bernie Sanders says stuff, and a polished, telegenic, and relentlessly safe advocacy for the idea that his credentials make him a good person to elect president.
I’m not bad. I like things that are not bad. You, too, like things that are not bad! If you like things that are not bad, vote for me, a thing that is not bad. Thank you.
In American history, being a generically good-lookin’ white dude who mostly can say these things without accidentally biting his own tongue off pretty much has been a golden ticket to elected office. If you can keep it up for a few election cycles while some good stuff happens and some especially bad stuff doesn’t, eventually you get your own cult! Which is weirder: that pattern, or the fact that it didn’t carry Martin O’Malley all the way to the presidency?
This time around, the very traits that in pretty much any other cycle would have made Martin O’Malley an electoral unicorn, or at the very least a tough out, made him almost uncannily anonymous and insignificant. Not just along demographic axes, either. Next to Hillary’s global profile and time as Secretary of State, his solid résumé of executive officeholding looks like piddly generic shit, not nearly enough to make him the safe, statespersonly choice for voters (and horserace political media) who value “experience” as some abstract thing, divorced from the complexity of analyzing and forming judgments about what a given candidate has actually done with it. Meanwhile that same résumé, taken on equally abstract terms but from a different perspective, tells a truth about O’Malley that no amount of, uh, busking ...
... can obscure: That he is not Mr. Smith Going to Washington, but a mainstream party product, guided and funneled along to presidential candidacy as surely as a log sent down a flume from the hilltop. He is no idealist’s radical outsider choice. He’s just a healthy-looking, generic, mainstream politician with a Dad-like hobby.
I suppose a noteworthy part of this is the evident change in the values and penalties assigned to all these various attributes by voters, donors, and media. Dapper Dan the Electable Man’s handsome-ish dudely electability not only wasn’t the decisive factor in a campaign against a woman and an actual garden gnome—it couldn’t get him any traction whatsoever. That’s something. It really is something! I doubt many people predicted it a decade ago.
On the other hand, probably one arc of one still-not-remotely-complete presidential campaign cycle is too small a sample size from which to go drawing Big Conclusions About America. The GOP has its own Martin O’Malley, after all. His name is Marco Rubio, and the politics media is treating him like Caesar returning to Rome today because he finished in third place in a race where he was expected to finish in third place. It’s still pretty nice to be a Martin O’Malley! It will remain nice to be a Martin O’Malley for the foreseeable future.
So no, this was not the death knell for a certain political type, probably not even on the left. Barack Obama won the presidency eight years ago, after all, and then again four years ago over Mitt Romney, the Martin O’Malley-est Martin O’Malley who ever lived, and the Martin O’Malleys are still out here boogie-boarding down the electoral log flume in embarrassing Aqua Socks. If it’s nice that this particular Martin O’Malley could not play his Martin O’Malley-ness as a Price Is Right fail-horn against his starkly un-Martin O’Malley competitors, the overwhelmingly likely outcome remains a depressing four- or eight-year reminder that none of these choices ever were as radical or dangerous or transformative as they seemed. Butthole-Americans come in all shapes and sizes, including whatever the fuck Donald Trump is.
This Martin O’Malley’s lowly, thwarted exit has less to do with grand social transformations, and much more to do with neatly polarizing (and almost entirely bogus) narratives of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an apocalyptic choice between two irreconcilable paths for the future of liberalism. Which is a whole other thing, and doesn’t make O’Malley’s summary dismissal any less fair. If the belief that liberalism will pretty much be okay with either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as Democratic nominee and/or president could congeal into the form of a person who walked around and played the banjo, it would be Martin O’Malley—but it also wouldn’t vote for Martin O’Malley, because it would not believe there was any particular reason not to pick one of the other two.
So what the hell was all this about, then? Casting. Somebody has to get gunned down in the second act, and he might as well be good-looking.
Farewell, Martin O’Malley. You’ll always be No. 1 on Shutterstock.