If former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is going to present any kind of challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, he is going to have to get started soon. And he’s going to need to make a very compelling argument for why rank and file Democrats should turn their backs on Clinton for a second time. Perhaps this is O’Malley’s opening salvo:

Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who is likely to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, took a veiled shot at a potential rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech in South Carolina on Saturday, criticizing the politics of “triangulation” that have historically been associated with the Clintons.

“The most fundamental power of our party and our country is the power of our moral principles,” Mr. O’Malley said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by an aide.

In words that echoed those of Senator Barack Obama when he battled Mrs. Clinton in 2007 for the Democratic nomination, Mr. O’Malley added: “Triangulation is not a strategy that will move America forward. History celebrates profiles in courage, not profiles in convenience.”

The problem, as I see it, is that most people have no idea what “triangulation” refers to, and, among those who do, there isn’t a strong consensus on exactly what it means or how it is relevant to our politics today.

As a strategic matter, O’Malley may want to highlight the things about Bill Clinton’s presidency that displeased a lot of Democrats at the time. He may want to point out things that look like missteps in retrospect. By doing so, he can put Hillary in a tough spot, as she wants to take advantage of her husband’s good standing with the party faithful while, at the same time, assure the nation that she’s her own person and not just an extension of Bill. Any time she has to create distance from the 42nd president, she’ll be uncomfortable.

On a substantive level, this can’t be an effort at re-litigating decisions that were made twenty or more years ago. O’Malley can’t score many points by talking about the failure to pass HillaryCare or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA. But he can contrast his views on trade and Wall Street regulation with Bill Clinton’s record and invite Hillary to do the same.

To get traction, he’ll have to find some areas where Hillary won’t break from Bill. But even if he can’t mount a credible challenge in terms of winning states and delegates, he can help define where the party stands.

Personally, I associate triangulation with a very specific period in history. It was the the strategy Dick Morris successfully urged on the president after the Republicans took over control of Congress in the 1994 elections. He would pass legislation on the Republicans’ wish list and then take credit for it, robbing them of campaign themes in the 1996 election.

This doesn’t seem pertinent to the 2016 election.

But ‘triangulation’ as a term can stand in for a lot of different ideas, both good and bad. On the good side, it can mean an effort to work with Congress to address problems even when Congress is controlled by the opposite party. On the bad side, it can mean conceding the ideological battlefield to your opponents and putting their legislative priorities above your own.

I’m sure it can mean a lot more than this, too. But talking about triangulation isn’t going to resonate by itself. And, at some point, O’Malley has to run against Hillary, not Bill. She has an extensive record of her own. And it may be, once again, her foreign policy record and positions that are her greatest weaknesses with Iowa caucusgoers.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com