Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley warned his fellow Democrats not to take too lightly the general election threat posed by Donald Trump.
In a forum co-hosted by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and the “Candidate Confessional” podcast, O’Malley called the broad dismissal of Trump’s White House prospects elitist — the result of punditry that’s divorced from an increasingly angered electorate.
“There’s a certain smugness inside the beltway in Washington,” O’Malley said. “I think we have our work cut out for us. This could be a very, very defining moment in the life of our republic. And I think that we have our work cut out for us in the general.”
“This is not a slam dunk,” O’Malley added.
The dire warnings from the former 2016 presidential candidate came just under two weeks ago. So it’s possible that he’s feeling more bullish about his party’s standing these days, after Trump’s series of self-inflicted gashes: a since-reversed call to punish women who get abortions, revelations that his campaign manager actually did grab a female reporter, and so on. But O’Malley’s case for taking the real estate tycoon seriously was based more on the economic conditions that allowed his rise, than the idiosyncratic character flaws that seem to portend his fall.
The country, O’Malley insisted, is quite angry with the status quo, and he knows better than most.
“I saw Vice President Gore about three weeks ago,” O’Malley said. “He asked me afterwards, ‘What surprised you most about the process?’ And I said, ‘What surprised me most was not only the depth and the breadth of people’s anger, but the patience of it.’ There are a lot of people that just want to pull into the angry lane, park the car, and toss the keys out the window. And they ain’t leaving.”
O’Malley was in many ways a victim of that anger. Not because voters disapproved with his message, but because they latched on to another candidate who channelled their frustrations better. While O’Malley ran as a progressive with a record, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran as a populist. That Sanders was still campaigning while O’Malley was recording the live-show podcast showed which approach had more potency.
“I guess by the end of the summer and after that first debate or two, it became pretty clear that his candidacy was not waning, it was at least going to hold with where it was,” O’Malley said, when asked when he knew that the Sanders phenomenon would be just that. “That became clear. There were times when I sensed it was starting to dip. People had been to see him a couple times and he tended not to do the questions and answers that are part of the culture of running in the Iowa caucuses. But ultimately he had the money to sustain it. So at the very moment that he seemed to be waning in the late summer time, he was able to go on the air shortly thereafter.”
It wasn’t just a mistimed message that doomed O’Malley. The debate schedule that the Democratic National Committee put in place didn’t help either. And the self-perpetuating loop of fundraising futility — in which you can’t raise money because you’re polling in single digits and you can’t break out of single digits because you don’t have money — also played a role.
“At least two hours a day, I spent calling a lot of very wealthy people who had been members of President Obama’s finance committee, who had not decided to commit to Secretary Clinton,” O’Malley said. “If we had gotten more traction earlier in Iowa, we probably could have coaxed more out of them out of their shelves. But as the dynamic of the race proceeded, by the time Vice President [Joe] Biden decided to take his foot out of the pool, a lot of those finance types had decided not to get involved at all.”
For all those vexations, O’Malley said he enjoyed his time on the trail. And he encouraged the students in attendance to dip their toes into politics, if only to effect the type of social change that they wanted. As for whether he’d join them, O’Malley ducked a question of which cabinet position he’d prefer in a prospective Sanders or Clinton administration. And he doesn’t seem keen on taking another stab at the Oval Office.
O’Malley, toward the end of the interview, recounted how a man in Iowa approached him and — with the campaign clearly not looking so healthy at that point — pleaded with him to “promise” that he’d run again.
“And I said to him, ‘No!'” O’Malley said. His son, William, was with him as the interaction took place. When it was done, he turned to his dad: “It is like volunteering for a second waterboarding before the first one is done.”
Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be Karl Kassel of Alaska, who lost a 10,000-vote race by an excruciating four votes.
“Candidate Confessional” is produced by Christine Conetta.