Josh Kurtz: Charm Offensive

By Josh Kurtz

If Martin O’Malley runs for president in 2016, he may have one small but influential voting bloc locked up: the national media.

During an appearance last week before two dozen reporters at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C., O‘Malley had the reporters in thrall. More candid at the breakfast meeting than most pols, he was, by turns, serious, charming, thoughtful, philosophical, funny, self-effacing — and thoroughly dialed in on every issue he was queried about.

This may not have been the A List of Washington political reporters, but it was a solid B, maybe even a B-plus. Third Way, an ascendant organization in hyper-partisan Washington, known increasingly for its utter if naive reasonableness, has these breakfast salons about once a month, hosted by former CNN commentator Bill Schneider, who now holds the title of distinguished senior fellow and resident scholar at the think tank. Reporters attending who you may have heard of included Ezra Klein, the wunderkind economics columnist at The Washington Post, Eleanor Clift, the venerable Newsweek reporter and veteran talking head, and Richard Wolffe of MSNBC, an Obama biographer and cheerleader.

Time, USA Today and National Journal were among the other media outlets who had representatives on hand. Annapolis reporters for the Post and the Baltimore Sun were also on hand, feeling, no doubt, a little like fish out of water among all those big feet who don’t have to write stories, blog posts and Twitter feeds all day long.

Sit-downs between scribes and rising star politicians are a time-honored Washington tradition. The so-called Sperling Breakfasts — off-the-record chats between a self-selected group of reporters and important policy makers named for Godfrey Sperling, the now-retired Christian Science Monitor correspondent who first organized them — started in the late 1960’s, and an invitation was a coveted prize for journalists and politicians alike. Around the same time, another group of heavyweight Washington reporters started inviting potential presidential candidates to off-the-record dinners, so they take measure of the men who would lead our country, see if they withered under their tough questions — and how they handled their liquor.

Today the Sperling breakfast still exists — though it’s called the Monitor breakfast, and sometimes it’s held at lunch hour. And while there’s still an invitation list, it isn’t nearly so exclusive an affair — and the conversations are almost always on the record and posted later on the Monitor’s website.

Schneider’s “Inside Politics” breakfasts are even less exclusive still, but among the press corps they seem to attract a pretty good mix of seasoned pros (being spoon-fed quotes for an hour beats working) and kids who have been dispatched by their outlets at that early hour to produce something – and who enjoy rubbing shoulders with the seasoned pros (“Hey, John Harwood knows my name!”).

Into this setting came O’Malley, relieved, no doubt, to be out of Mike Miller’s airspace if only for a while. He was pithy — referring to the last-minute gambling debate in Annapolis as a “silly bomb,” and getting chuckles when he said, with his best mischievous grin, “Nothing says jobs like trans-vaginal probes” (a remark that became the quote of the day in The Hotline, National Journal’s daily political tip sheet).

O’Malley expressed confidence that Maryland voters would preserve the new same-sex marriage law in November — “we’re a middle state, [with a] middle temperament,” was his explanation.

O’Malley talked national politics and about his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. And of course he was asked about whether he plans to run for president in 2016 — after all, Third Way’s invitation for O’Malley’s appearance touted him as a possible contender.

“It’s nice and it’s kind but I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it or working at it or worrying about it,” he said. “The future will be.”

O’Malley went on, talking about how his daughters email him every time they see his name mentioned as a possible candidate alongside Hillary Clinton’s and Andrew Cuomo’s and Joe Biden’s.

“It’s nice to be included,” he said, before turning philosophical. “Anything you hope to do later in public service always depends on what you’re doing right now.” He also allowed that he’s very happy not to have to worry about re-election.

When it was over, as a satisfied press corps was filing out, Schneider joked to O’Malley, “I’ve been watching you a long time. I think I was at your Bar Mitzvah.”

Game on!

You think, as a presidential candidate, that having the media in your corner isn’t an asset? It may not get you a win in the Iowa caucuses, but it doesn’t hurt. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign seemed to be sustained almost entirely by his chumminess with the national media. National reporters were hyping Barack Obama before he was even elected to the U.S. Senate. In this year’s Republican nominating contest, the media seemed more desperate to find an attractive alternative to Mitt Romney than voters did.

Favorable mentions — sometimes even mentions of any kind — are very valuable to potential presidential candidates.

The wonder is that more would-be White House contenders don’t spend time wooing the national media. Andrew Cuomo, we’re told, has made exactly one visit to Washington in the 16 months he’s been governor. And he’s offered almost no interviews to reporters of any kind. Hillary Clinton has a famously complicated relationship with the media. Biden’s advisers still need to keep him under wraps, because they never know what he’s going to say — even after 40 years in Washington.

So for O’Malley, who can turn on the charm whenever he wants to, an appearance like the one at Third Way last week is a no-brainer. He has the added luxury of being so close to Washington that he can slip into town at a moment’s notice to continue his charm offensive on national pundits.

That puts him at an advantage over Cuomo and other potential rivals for the 2016 Democratic nomination like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Of all other potential candidates, only Mark Warner has the proximity to D.C. — and the personality — to work national reporters as regularly and willfully as O’Malley can. So why shouldn’t he take advantage?

Just wait till he invites them to one of his rock concerts…

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Bad Karma in Annapolis II — Limbo Edition

Heather Mizeur, Superstar

Striking Back at the Empire

Bad Karma in Annapolis

More Than a Protest Vote

Doug Duncan’s Next Act