Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Alec MacGillis had a piece yesterday talking down Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley as a presidential candidate. He may be right! But...well, let me give you a taste:
For all his gym-rat, pub-rock credentials, O’Malley is not a very charismatic politician...

In speeches, this lack of dynamism becomes especially noticeable...

When attempting to explain a deeper rationale for his policies, O’Malley tends to offer long lists of metrics, or anodyne pronouncements like, “It’s not about whether we move left or right; it’s about whether we move forward or back.” He has a penchant for quoting, approvingly and at length, the bromides of Tom Friedman. It’s hard to see Democratic primary voters getting fired up about a candidate whose vision for the nation is of an “opportunity-expanding entity.”

But competence alone does not a national campaign make...
Okay, I'll buy all of that as weaknesses.

But it also sounds a whole lot like Mike Dukakis, who won a nomination pretty comfortably (it also could perhaps fit Mitt Romney). Now, granted, Dukakis got a drubbing from George H.W. Bush, but candidate qualities matter in the nomination stage, not the general election.

The more general question is whether we have any sense at all about what makes a good presidential nomination candidate. I've sort of played around with three tiers of viable candidates, mostly based on objective qualifications -- the top tier would be, for example, those with previous national success (so those who have been on a national ticket or run strong previous presidential nomination campaigns). Let's see...viable candidates, I've said, are those with conventional qualifications and issue positions within the mainstream of their party. So perhaps what breaks up the second and bottom tiers would be whether they fit comfortably within that definition or not.

 Subjective attributes? Forget it; there's just no way to have any sense of it.

What I do think is that reporters are apt to overemphasizing surface "campaigning" skills. They aren't irrelevant! But I'd always rather bet on a candidate who a broad range of important party actors like over a candidate who party actors have no demonstrated interest in despite the ability to give a rousing speech. On the other hand, figuring out what appeals to party actors is tricky indeed -- as is figuring out which party actors are the important ones.

And it's certainly true that, at least on the margins, one of the things that party actors may care about is electoral appeal, measured through performance on the stump and (ultimately) in presidential primaries. So I'm not saying that speechifying and other surface stuff is irrelevant. It's just easy to overstate its importance.

At any rate: O'Malley does seem to have one important qualification: he's eager and ready to run, full-out. That, plus basic viability, means I wouldn't write him off yet. At least not based on his campaign persona.


  1. I still keep coming back to Bobby Jindal and the wet thud he made in his SOTU response.

    I think that the likely causal mechanism goes THROUGH party actors. They watched his speech and the reaction to it, and have since soured on him. (At least, my tea-leaf reading tells me that he's 2nd tier at best for 2016).

    Really, I think the word I'm hung up on in MacGillis' snippet there is charismatic. I know that you favor defining "charisma" as something reporters attach to winning candidates. I think that happens, but I also think that A LOT of folks who've won elections before have both demonstrated (and improved upon!) interpersonal skills that we usually think of as "charisma."

    1. But what did Jindal expect for his SOTU response to be like? Responses suck, for one, they're terrible when your position is full of fibs, and even if you carry it off well, it's boring.

      If anyone asked about doing the job, I'd send someone competent, but not motivated.

  2. Alec MacGillis is a sharp political reporter, but I haven't been terribly impress by his commentary. He's probably repeating the words of wisdom on the beltway.

  3. How about gravitas? I think that was the favorite word of Jack Germond. If you can impress a meeting of 10-40 potential donors, you're doing good.

  4. I also found this argument to be pretty bad. I mean for God's sake Bill Clinton's 1988 keynote speech to the DNC wasn't very good either, and while the Castro bros are pretty cool I think it's fair to say they won't be the nominee in 2016.

    What annoys me about this sort of stuff is that a good argument about why O'Malley won't lose can be made, but MacGillis didn't make it. Instead we just heard about how he likes Obamaesque speeches a want pasionate fire on the stump. To each his own, but that's not good analysis.

    1. Bill Clinton fought a brutal primary battle in 1992 for the nomination, and a lot of people discounted his candidacy based on similar intangibles. He was said to be slick, opportunistic, without a moral compass. Much like today's "leading from behind" meme.

      It's so darn hard to identify the guys who are genius on the economy in advance.

  5. A friend from college became one of the top tier movers and shakers in Dem politics nationally. When I had dinner with him in 2003--some time before the 2004 primaries started--the conversation drifted to probable nominees. I suggested John Kerry. He said (in essence) no way, it will never happen.

    So of course nobody knows at this point, even with the likelihood of Hillary. But these days I sense the relative power of party players is diminishing, as media moments affect the real power--the ability to raise money and get attention. The GOP spent almost their entire primary season going through one ridiculous candidate after another, because they each had a media moment that translated into cash.

    In terms of basic campaign qualities, the debates have recently been important. If O'Malley can't make an impression in the debates, the money slows. The first primaries depend as well on how he does with relatively small groups (i.e. the famous retail politics.) By the time he gets to needing to make big speeches, he's got the pick of speechwriters.

    The calculus changes when you've got a veteran national player like Hillary in the mix, with lots of highly placed allies. And then there's the cautionary tale of 2008, when Obama's speeches really did make a difference (and overcame his indifferent debates.)

    1. Sure, but let's talk Al Gore. He had a lot of really high-profile (and expensive) people working on his 2000 campaign, and he was a true veteran national player as well. It didn't turn out so well for him.

    2. No amount of cash can help a media entrenched against you.

      ...And really, keeping the media from being turned on the Democratic candidate is pretty tough.

  6. Certainly O'Malley's band is better than this, aren't they? From the wooden gestures to the playing for the band to the nervous peering out the side of his RayBans, Clinton's appearance on Arsenio must be a good candidate for the alltime most overrated moment for political charisma.

    I daresay with this charisma stuff, to the victor goes the spoils. What must O'Malley do to seem charismatic enough to be President?

    Win the White House.

  7. I wouldn't have described Dukakis as Friedmanesque.


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