The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Martin O’Malley builds his liberal credentials ahead of 2016

If Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) runs for president in 2016, expect to hear a lot more about the legislative session that just wrapped in his state.

Lawmakers passed sweeping legislation on guns, the death penalty, transportation, and medical marijuana, much of which was championed by the governor. It amounts to a potentially powerful progressive platform from which O’Malley could court liberal support in a presidential primary.

"I think it's all positive for Democratic primary politics," said former Maryland Democratic secretary of state John T. Willis, now a political scientist at the University of Baltimore.

On guns, legislators approved O’Malley’s proposals, voting for a package that would tighten requirements for purchasing certain firearms, limit the legal capacity of ammunition magazines and ban certain semiautomatic weapons. The new measures are among the nation’s strictest.

Lawmakers also voted to repeal the state’s death penalty. For years, O’Malley has opposed capital punishment. “Human dignity is the fundamental belief on which the laws of this state and this republic are founded,” he wrote in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed.

Among other things, the General Assembly passed a gas tax hike and a bill legalizing medical marijuana. While the latter was not something O’Malley spearheaded, he is expected to sign the bill.

All in all, there is a lot for liberals to like.

"The interesting thing is that there were a lot of things on different tracks that all came to fruition this year," Willis said.

O’Malley’s allies insist his governance is rooted in pragmatism, rather than political calculation or an effort to build early support with the political left. “I wouldn’t just look at it through the lens of partisan political box checking,” one Democrat close to the governor said. O’Malley essentially got what he wanted in the session, an outcome the Democrat said is the product of focusing on results.

Even so, everything O’Malley does holds implications for his political future, considering his high-profile standing in the Democratic Party. So, there are a few reasons why this all matters politically.

For one thing, the term-limited Democrat will leave office in early 2015. That means the recently concluded 2013 session was the last real chance for the governor to enact far-reaching legislation and cement his legacy. Next year, he’ll be a lame duck with far less political capital.

O’Malley now has signature achievements on same-sex marriage and gun-control under his belt – two issues receiving a lot of attention in the Democratic Party right now. While it's impossible to know how big an electoral factor each will be in the 2016 campaign, it’s safe to say both will matter to some extent. And given the way some of O’Malley’s potential competitors have been positioning themselves, keeping pace is a necessity for him.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) made a splash on the national scene in 2011 when he helped legalize same-sex marriage in his state. And like O’Malley, he also recently signed sweeping gun control legislation. Vice President Biden grabbed headlines when he endorsed gay marriage even before President Obama. Biden has also been a big part of the Obama administration’s push for stricter federal gun laws.

Despite his productive session, O'Malley's legislative work won't be complete this year, if his measures are brought to a direct voter referendum like his gay marriage law was last year. Gun control and the death penalty appear to be the likeliest targets for an opposition-led effort to trigger referenda.

Having concrete policy positions to point to is far more persuasive than simply taking positions on the issues that voters care about. And O'Malley, much like his potential opposition, has bolstered his credentials on that front.

Of course, being well-positioned for a party primary could also mean being vulnerable in a general election, and some of O’Malley’s political strengths could prove to hamstring him further down the road, should he make it that far. (For example, polling shows the death penalty has stronger support among moderates and conservatives, compared to liberals.) Playing to base voters – Democrat or Republican – who turn out in primaries is very different from playing to the November electorate. Just ask Mitt Romney about his hard-line immigration stance that came back to bite him against Obama last year.