On Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats who may or may not run for president in 2016 spoke at a firefighters union gathering in Washington. But the two Democrats who addressed the crowd found their attempts to gain some national attention once again foiled by the specter of Hillary Clinton.
The International Association of Fire Fighters held its second presidential forum Tuesday since 2007, when John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden all addressed the union and made their pitches for the group's endorsement. At this forum, only Biden made a second appearance Monday night. Clinton was scheduled to appear but could not make it due to a conflicting speech at the United Nations' Women's Empowerment Principles meeting.
The timing of the IAFF forum could not have been better—or worse—for the union and the Democrats scheduled to speak to its members. On Monday, Gov. Scott Walker signed a right-to-work law, making Wisconsin the 25th state to essentially eliminate union dues. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is hoping to follow suit.
It seems like an ideally scheduled moment for former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and (to an extent) Sen. Bernie Sanders, who all spoke Tuesday, to make the case for themselves as the un-Hillary. Webb, who announced an exploratory committee for president in November, is so far the only Democrat to have made a concrete public step toward running in 2016, but Clinton, O'Malley, and Sanders are each expected to announce a run in the next few months.
But try as they might, Sanders, Webb, and O'Malley were eclipsed by the news of Clinton's press conference at the United Nations on Tuesday afternoon to address the email controversy. Whatever media attention was on the IAFF forum to being with quickly shifted to the abysmal press access for Clinton's press conference—an ouroboros of political journalism. Even when Clinton is performing poorly, she still gets more attention than the other three left-leaning contenders combined.
The forum's Tuesday session, which also featured a plethora of probable Republican contenders, provided a platform for the likely Democratic candidates to make their pitch to the moderate, blue-collar members of the firefighters union.
O'Malley touted his record supporting collective-bargaining during his time in the Maryland Statehouse, contrasting himself with Republicans like Walker.
"In Wisconsin, right-wing ideologues just took action to wipe out unions in their state," Gov. Martin O'Malley told the gathering of firefighters. "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."
And while O'Malley played the crowd just fine, it was a speaking gig tailor-made for Webb. The firefighters at the IAFF forum were particularly friendly toward Webb, whom they also supported during his Senate run in 2006. During his speech, Webb noted that he has "a union card, two Purple Hearts, and three tattoos"—a line cribbed from his 2008 book, A Time to Fight.
Webb held up that union card during his speech (but declined to bare his tats) and vociferously argued for union rights.
"Union membership has too often been vilified and misunderstood," Webb said, adding that collective-bargaining rights are "essential to the health of the American economy."
Webb's reception contrasted pretty sharply with the one Sen. Ted Cruz got from the crowd, despite Cruz's best efforts to woo them. Webb took the stage immediately after Cruz and wasted no time throwing shade at the Texan for his tardiness.
"I'd like to say just for the record, I was on time this morning," Webb said, to applause and even a whistle or two. "Got to listen to a pretty long speech there."
But that applause is almost certain to be drowned out. It's a vicious cycle: Because Clinton is far better-known than any of her potential Democratic opponents, she receives far more (positive and negative) coverage. And, at least partially because she continues to receive so much coverage, people continue to care about her more than any other potential Democratic candidate.
Maybe what O'Malley and Webb need is a good scandal to get the ball rolling.