At a moment when everybody in Washington is talking about e-mails, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D) wants to talk about Wall Street reform. Indeed, while Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail address at the State Department has created a media frenzy and overshadowed other issues, the past week brought additional news in the Democratic primary: O’Malley is almost certainly running for president. And he’s determined to make his voice heard despite some pundits dismissing his ability to mount a “credible” challenge to Clinton for the party’s nomination.
The swirl of controversy surrounding Clinton has not only called her inevitability into question but also given much of the media an excuse to focus on optics rather than policy coverage, which is just one of the reasons O’Malley’s emergence is a positive development. A contested Democratic primary will be good for the country, good for the party, good for democracy and good for driving issues that might otherwise be ignored into the election.
Since leaving office in January, O’Malley has been traveling the country and laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. During recent visits to Kansas, New Hampshire and elsewhere, O’Malley has delivered a progressive populist message. Specifically, he has called for reinstating Glass-Steagall banking regulations, hiking the capital gains tax, increasing the minimum wage, raising the threshold for overtime pay and strengthening collective bargaining rights. And while he is far more comfortable discussing his policies than his potential opponents, O’Malley took a perceived shot at Clinton in South Carolina when he declared, “Triangulation is not a strategy that will move America forward.”
I recently sat down with O’Malley to discuss his possible path to the White House. He made the case that rather than practicing the politics of “triangulation,” Democrats need to speak with clarity about what they are for. “We have to be very clear as a party about our principles,” he told me. “I think we undercut our own governing message and our own mission statement when we’re not clear-throated about the failure of trickle-down economics, how the economy is a result of political choices we make and why we need a combination of wage policies that reward work and policies to rein in reckless speculation that becomes destructive or predatory. It just undercuts our argument when we try to find the middle ground.”
Driven by the belief that economic inequality and declining wages will be vital issues in 2016, O’Malley has adopted a platform that resonates with much of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) populist plan to help the middle class. He was candid, for example, in his criticism of Democrats who have acquiesced to the Republican talking point that Social Security is driving the deficit. “There’s been a myth pushed that what’s wrong with our country is entitlements,” he said. “I think we do need to expand Social Security, and I think we need to be unabashed about it.” O’Malley further cited Warren’s boldness as the reason she connects with so many voters, saying, “I think that people have been responding to Senator Warren because of the clarity with which she speaks to the rigging of the system.”
Though he did record an impressive number of progressive achievements in two terms as governor — overseeing the passage of marriage equality, banning assault weapons, ending the death penalty, raising the minimum wage and enacting a state version of the Dream Act — his more sharply framed populist message seems as though it was tailor-made for these times and this campaign.
Yet O’Malley does not seem like a natural economic populist. In conversation, he comes across as calm and measured, more comfortable with statistics than fiery political rhetoric. He is every bit the technocratic manager known for tackling crime in Baltimore using data and sometimes described as a “nerd.” That approach likely contributed to O’Malley’s success as an executive, but it’s unclear that his technocratic impulses can get traction in a campaign where passion may be vital to mobilizing the base. And with populist movements and activism on the rise, it remains to be seen how O’Malley’s emphasis on a “politics of inclusion and connection” will play among voters who have seen virtually all of the gains from the recovery captured by the top 1 percent.
O’Malley is also untested on foreign policy and national security. He has called for a commitment to engagement and diplomacy, and he plans to elaborate on his vision in speeches over the coming months. Furthermore, O’Malley could shake up the foreign policy debate by driving the danger of catastrophic climate change into the primaries. As he said in our interview, the United States’ ability “to collaborate with likeminded people around the globe to confront the challenge of climate change” must be a “security imperative.”
While he sees a path to the nomination, O’Malley understands that it will take a lot more work to shed his underdog status. After a poll showed him cracking double digits in a potential matchup against Clinton, O’Malley quipped, “Am I really up to 11 percent? Who did this poll? Was this my mom?” Regardless of his chances, though, O’Malley can make the 2016 election a much better race. Contested primaries are good both for the presidential contenders and for the country. Most Americans have little time to pay attention to the news or to political debates in Washington. Primary battles have the potential to catch fire and engage a broader citizenry. The media broadcast many of the debates. Activists can be roused.
A credible challenge, whether from O’Malley, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, former senator Jim Webb (Va.) or Warren, could help engage and excite Democratic voters. And it could force Clinton to more boldly address vital issues such as income inequality, climate change and the war on organized labor, while helping ensure that her inevitability doesn’t look like entitlement.