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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Everybody’s talking about Hillary Clinton’s email problems except the three Democratic upstarts trying to slow down or maybe even halt her march to the 2016 presidential nomination.

Forget trying to foment conflict from these single-digit strivers. Deference has been the trio’s default setting toward the formidable if flawed politician on the verge of becoming the official frontrunner in the race, and who can blame them. “Hillary Clinton is a remarkable woman with an extraordinary history of public service,” Vermont senator Bernie Sanders said this month at the National Press Club between calls for a grassroots movement to take on corporations and “the billionaire class.” As for her email troubles, “Not one of the major issues facing me.” In the same vein, former Virginia senator Jim Webb told NPR recently that he would not run “as a counterpoint” to Clinton but rather to promote his own ideas about how to help people get ahead. Asked repeatedly about the emails, he told reporters that “people will make conclusions in a better way than I can.”

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a Clinton ally in the past, has gone furthest to draw distinctions. He is on a kick of emphasizing “openness and transparency,” and spoke Wednesday at the Brookings Institution on the need for accountability in governing. It’s not hard to connect those dots, given the ongoing Clinton email furor. But in other ways O’Malley might as well be speaking in code. Democrats can’t become “Dodd-Frank light,” he says, a reference to a Wall Street reform law and a warning that the party should crack down. “Glass-Steagall” needs to be reinstated, he says, referring to a law that limited risky investments by banks, that Bill Clinton had a hand in repealing, and that might have helped prevent the Great Recession had it been in place.

The tacit message is that he’d be tougher than Hillary Clinton on banks and Wall Street. But O’Malley demurs when it comes to direct criticism. “I like Hillary Clinton. I respect Secretary Clinton. I am not here to talk about Secretary Clinton,” he said on a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire. On Wednesday, asked about Clinton’s press conference on her email troubles, he said he hadn’t watched it.

This is not the stuff of headlines and fevered cable TV bookings. Nor do the aspirants have a Republican president to swing at. O’Malley has suggested he would be stronger than President Obama on immigration reform and overtime pay — but that’s a hard argument to make since Obama is under siege over trying to restructure the immigration system unilaterally, and his Labor Department plans to update regulations this year to make more people eligible for overtime pay.

So what are the Democrats to do? Why not turn their attention to Republicans, particularly the multitude weighing presidential bids? It’s not like the GOP hopefuls have been delicate in their critiques of Obama, Clinton or Democrats in general. The Not-Hillary contenders, by turning the tables, could become a useful army for their party and at least try to raise their own profiles before Clinton’s expected launch next month.

O’Malley demonstrated how it’s done this week at an International Association of Fire Fighters conference, giving an energetic speech that recalled his 2012 role as Democratic surrogate on the talk-show circuit. There was no tiptoeing around Clinton or splitting of liberal policy hairs. Instead, speaking after a half-dozen Republicans, he said all of them “are opposed to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining, you see, runs contrary to their belief that keeping wages low somehow makes America’s economy better. We’ve now suffered 12 years in a row of declining wages thanks to that brand of voodoo economics.”

Homing in further, O’Malley noted that in Wisconsin, “right-wing ideologues just took action to wipe out unions in their state. Now that might be good policy for the Koch brothers, but it’s bad for our economy, it’s bad for firefighters, and it’s bad for the working people of the United States of America.” He was talking about Governor Scott Walker, a leading GOP White House prospect, and he should have just said so.

O’Malley, Webb and Sanders are reveling in some attention — finally — as Democrats and the media realize that Clinton might not be invincible. As her disappointing press conference confirmed, there will not be a fresh new Clinton era. Hillary is still Hillary, a package deal in which Democrats must take the defensive, self-protective, lawyerly control freak along with the hard worker, serious policymaker, loyal partisan and potential pathbreaker. There’s plenty of time for the upstart trio, or other players to be named later, to mount an intra-party case against Clinton. Right now, instead of Democratic White House hopefuls making arguments against their GOP counterparts, there’s a void. They should fill it while they have a chance.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley delivered a keynote presentation at Canada 2020 on November 26, 2014 and sat down in conversation with Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. (Canada 2020/Flickr)