Hillary Rodham Romney? Keep an Eye on O’Malley

by Stuart Rothenberg April 30, 2015 · 2:27 PM EDT

For all her recent efforts to prove her progressive credentials to Democratic primary voters and caucus participants, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has not made those on her party’s left entirely comfortable with her. And she never will.

Because of that, a credible alternative would have the capacity to rally progressive Democrats behind a challenge to the former first lady, possibly even creating an entertaining skirmish or two.

The only question right now is if a serious contender will emerge. Not everyone, after all, would be equally capable of galvanizing anti-Hillary sentiment within the Democratic Party.

At first glance, the idea of a backbencher mounting even a moderately interesting challenge to Clinton is preposterous. After all, she will have the deepest war chest in history, begins with a lengthy résumé of accomplishments, has a flood of endorsements and institutional support, and holds the “first woman president” card in her hand.

But Clinton has as much chance of convincing Democratic progressives she is truly one of them as Mitt Romney had of convincing tea party conservatives and evangelicals he shared their values and views. That is: zero chance.

There is simply too much suspicion of Clinton on the left — and too much history to allow progressives to embrace her completely before they must.

Like Romney, who positioned himself as far right as he could from his 2008 presidential bid through his 2012 nomination, Clinton is emphasizing (and will continue to emphasize) her progressive credentials. But that will only reinforce the cynicism of progressive skeptics who regard her as a free trader with ties to Wall Street.

Much like Romney, Clinton’s greatest asset in her bid for her party’s nomination is the lack of a credible challenger.

Romney was able to stumble to the GOP nomination by outlasting then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and, eventually, Rick Santorum.  But given the quality of his opponents, his arduous victory was a testament to problems in his party, not his strength.

Only when Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination did conservatives become resigned to his nomination and embrace him for the fall election.

Clinton could face even less-threatening opponents in Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, who was elected as an independent but caucuses with the Democrats, and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.

Sanders, 73 and in his second Senate term, is so far on the left he isn’t a credible alternative. And Webb, 69,  isn’t nearly progressive enough for Clinton’s critics and doesn’t seem to enjoy politics or people all that much. Both men often appear frustrated, angry and humorless.

On the other hand, someone like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who apparently is seriously considering a run for the Democratic nomination, has the potential to become at least an interesting alternative to the former first lady and secretary of State, both to reporters and progressive activists.

Attractive and youthful, O’Malley is a former two-term mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. Personable and with a ready smile, he plays the guitar and sings. His liberal credentials are unassailable, his Irish charm obvious.

In spite of his personal qualities and political positions, I doubt O’Malley, 52, would have much of a chance — or any chance — of overtaking Clinton. But, unlike Sanders or Webb, he could well be credible enough to generate a boomlet among progressives, leading to a flurry of media stories about Clinton’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And, were that to happen, it would be an important moment for the Clinton campaign.

Her campaign launch was smart. She timed it to rewrite the developing media narrative, which focused on her negatives, including her multiple email accounts and whether she could connect with average voters. And her Iowa listening tour brought back memories of her inaugural New York Senate bid listening tour, during which she answered questions about her ability to earn the confidence of longtime residents.

Clinton’s recent emphasis on economic populist themes both unites Democrats and shores up support on the left, where wary progressives still yearn for an Elizabeth Warren candidacy. But it seems unlikely Clinton can do what Romney couldn’t — bring ideologues into the fold until all alternatives are exhausted.

And that brings us back to O’Malley. Critics on Clinton’s left need a vehicle for their protest. Her weaknesses aren’t serious enough to deny her the Democratic nomination, but a challenge from a smooth-talking progressive just might make things interesting, create some journalistic interest in the Democratic horse race and jump-start a sagging career for one ambitious Democrat.