In his first public appearance since suspending his presidential campaign last month, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley warned that the general election is not a "slam-dunk" for Democrats even in the face of Donald Trump's polarizing candidacy and possible nomination by Republicans.
"I believe the level of anger in our country is such that, yes, this is not a slam dunk," O'Malley said at a forum hosted by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service.
"There's a certain smugness inside the beltway in Washington. So I think we have our work cut out for us. This could be a very, very defining moment in the life of our republic."
O'Malley said that Democrats "have our work cut out for us, both in calling out [Trump's] fascism with clarity, without being shrill, without being angry ourselves," but also in offering a positive vision for the country.
"Just as importantly, we have to tell the larger story of how these decisions we make together will affect your lives and your kids lives," he said.
While he was sounding the alarm on Trump's potential strength in the general electrion, O'Malley also targeted the Democratic Party as partly to blame for the GOP frontrunner's rise. The erstwhile Democratic underdog sharply criticized Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, though not by name, for, he said, unilaterally deciding to delay the start of the Democratic debates until the late fall.
"It was a great disservice to the republic, actually, that we let that immigrant-bashing carnival barker, fascist demagogue Donald Trump have full run" of the media coverage of the election through the summer, O'Malley said.
Trump, he added, "grew into a phenomenon over those summer months, while we heard nothing from the Democratic Party," and when the Democratic candidates did debate, the events were scheduled at inconvenient times when Americans were unlikely to watch. That schedule did indeed draw criticism not just from O'Malley but also from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign, both of which charged that Wasserman Schultz and the Democratic establishment were trying to inappropriately protect Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton by effectively hiding the debates.
O'Malley acknowledged that the delayed debate schedule may have doomed his campaign from the start. In a post-mortem review, one of his advisers told him when the debate schedule came out, "that's when I knew that our goose was cooked," because O'Malley's cash-strapped campaign planned to rely on the earned media from strong debate performances to build some early momentum.
Lacking that momentum, O'Malley struggled to raise enough money to air ads and otherwise boost his name ID across the nation. He said Tuesday night that fundraising was his campaign's "biggest challenge," and spent hours courting former members of President Obama's finance team, which never bore fruit.
But O'Malley went a step further, charging that the debate schedule left the party "silent" while Trump gained traction.
"It's enough for the success of evil that good people simply remain silent and at a critical time our party remained silent," he said.
"Yes it was bad for my candidacy, and my hopes, but I think it was, more importantly it was bad for the country and hopefully the party won't repeat that again."
In a further signal of the continued bad blood between O'Malley and the DNC chairwoman, the former governor criticized the lack of "offensive" activity by Democrats at the state level.
"We should be organizing, we should have an offense that does things like going state by state to pass resolutions in support of a constitutional right to vote, to constitutionally overturn citizens united," he said.
"Those are the things that a more functional party does at a time when the country seems to be flirting with taking a detour into becoming a security state for four years."
But he declined to criticize either of the remaining candidates in the Democratic primary, saying only he was surprised at Sanders' staying power. But he took sharp aim at both Trump and GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz for their proposals to police Muslim neighborhoods and bar Muslims from immigrating to the U.S.
"All the prescriptions Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are laying out are actually things that play into the strategy of ISIL," he said.