Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate began with a spoof-worthy intro from CNN that framed the race for the nomination as a competitive reality show. Hillary Clinton was “The Front-Runner;” Sen. Bernie Sanders was “The Surprise Threat;” Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, and Martin O’Malley were euphemistically called “The Political Veterans.” It was absurd.
O’Malley got hit hard early on, with a question from moderator Anderson Cooper about his time as mayor of Baltimore, and whether his aggressive (sorry, “assertive”) law-enforcement policies led to the April riots.
“The current top prosecutor in Baltimore, also a Democrat, blames your zero-tolerance policies for sowing the seeds of unrest,” Cooper began. “Why should Americans trust you with the country when they see what’s going on in the city that you ran for more than seven years?”
To begin with, O’Malley made the mistake of trying to correct the reference to State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, which prompted Cooper to go to the actual quote, which is even more devastating.
O’Malley then noted “that arrests had actually fallen to a 38-year low in the year prior to Freddie Gray’s tragic death,” (proving what?) before launching into a tortured defense of his policies, concluding that he “improv[ed] police and community relations every single day that [he] was in office.”
Cooper then challenged him on Baltimore’s massive arrest numbers, prompting lawsuits from the ACLU and NAACP. O’Malley quickly redefined the word “settled” and dished out some spin and finished with this: “It was about leadership. It was about principle. And it was about bringing people together.” (In jail?)
Here’s his response almost in full:
Outside of those few minutes, O’Malley didn’t have to squirm too much. And in fact, he got the opportunity to unload on Sanders for his record on gun control.
Unfortunately, even when he’s saying the right things, it’s hard to get past O’Malley’s stage manner. With its uncanny mix of rehearsed lines and misplaced emotion, it’s far from presidential. He has also played the underdog so completely that he can come off kind of bratty.
For instance, one of the debate’s more cringe-worthy moments came when O’Malley tried to pivot away from Clinton’s email scandal (once Sanders had basically declared it over) to call out DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who has refused to schedule more than six primary debates.
“Look how glad we are to actually be talking about the issues that matter most to people around their kitchen table,” he told Wasserman-Schultz from the stage. He elicited some applause, but it also made him look petty.
O’Malley didn’t make any grave mistakes (he didn’t even trip up on the #BlackLivesMatter question) and was even able to get more than his share of time on the mic, but his only real zinger was at the expense of Donald Trump. Talk about low-hanging fruit. All in all, he still looked like a beta wolf compared to Clinton and Sanders.
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