WASHINGTON – Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor and a man who would very much like to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, is making his case.
“We took measurable actions to reduce storm-water runoff and to expand the number of acres planted with winter cover crops, to upgrade clean technology at all of our sewer treatment plants,” he says. “We reduced nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment levels by 14, 15 and 18 percent, respectively.”
But wait – there’s more!
Before O'Malley was governor, he was mayor of Baltimore – and, he says, he implemented “the 48-hour pothole guarantee. And our crews actually hit that guarantee, and they hit it 97 percent of the time, and each of the members of those crews got a thank-you note from the mayor when we did it.”
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This is why Clinton has little to worry about, no matter how badly she flubs her response to the kerfuffle over her private email server and foreign contributions to her family’s foundation. She just doesn’t have a credible challenger. O'Malley actually is a serious player with a solid record – and he might well make a good president – but he’s campaigning as if he’s running to be Clinton’s EPA administrator or her OMB director.
“It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you to talk about data-driven governing, an issue that is near and dear to my heart,” O'Malley declared Wednesday at the Brookings Institution, where he was giving one of several policy speeches as part of his still-undeclared presidential campaign rollout. “This, my fellow citizens, is a new way over governing. … It’s not about left or right, it’s about doing the things that work.”
When he finished his talk about infant mortality and oysters, recidivism and lead poisoning, I told him it all sounds wonderful – just not the sort of thing that propels one to the presidency. His spokeswoman, Lis Smith, must agree, because she tracked me down after the speech to assure me O'Malley talks about many things. But O'Malley himself defended his passion for management-by-statistics. “I think people are actually far more interested in a functioning government and effective governance and people with executive experience than we might give them credit for,” he said.
In an ideal world, that would be true. But primaries are driven by ideology – and O'Malley is running as a technocrat. There’s theoretically an opening for a challenger to Clinton: This week’s NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 63 percent of Democratic primary voters are satisfied with their choices, compared with 77 percent at this point in 2007. That’s likely because few see an alternative to Clinton. Only 11 percent say they could see themselves voting for O'Malley – and 67 percent don’t know who he is. Take away Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, who appear not to be running, and other possible challengers to Clinton fare little better.
O'Malley shows little interest in taking Clinton on directly so far. Three times after O'Malley’s Brookings speech, The Washington Post’s John Wagner and other reporters asked him to weigh in on Clinton’s email woes. Three times, he punted. “Oh, God,” he said after the second question. “Frankly, I’m a little sick of the email drama.” He preferred to speak about his various data programs as mayor and governor: “CompStat,” CitiStat,” “StateStat” and “BayStat.”
“We brought crime down by 43 percent,” he said. “We reduced the number of children poisoned by lead in our city by 71 percent.” The statistics kept coming. “We cut in half the number of children placed in foster care. … We reduced infant mortality by more than 17 percent. … We drove down avoidable hospital readmissions by more than 10 percent in just the first year of trying. … I think we received some award from somebody.”
Important stuff, no question. But O'Malley admitted that “to the public, all of this process, process, process means very, very little.”
Indeed, he closed his prepared remarks by mentioning a girl who told him her drug-infested neighborhood was described as “Zombieland” – a description that also fit the still room at the think tank. “You guys are very quiet,” O'Malley stage-whispered as he waited for questions to begin.
Can such a milquetoast manager stop Democratic voters from following Clinton like zombies? O'Malley, who knows a lot about statistics, can appreciate the odds. “Failure has to be an option,” he said of his leadership style. “If we met every goal that we set, then we probably weren’t setting our sights very high.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.