Martin O’Malley must say that he believes he can win the 2016 Democratic nomination and the presidency. That’s how it works. The former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland who formally announces his candidacy this weekend cannot get caught suggesting that he is mounting an uphill race against front-runner Hillary Clinton in order to make enough of a name for himself so that Clinton will consider him as a vice presidential running mate—or perhaps as a cabinet member in the next administration.
But could O’Malley really be a contender? He has been dealt a tough hand: His record as governor was called into question when his designated successor got beaten in the Republican-wave election of 2014; his record as mayor has been called into question as Baltimore has become the focal point for a national debate about failed models for policing (and as critics have changed that O’Malley’s “zero-tolerance” policing and related policies “ignited a rift between the citizens and the police”); and his prospects for emerging as the most serious alternative to Clinton are being called into question by the enthusiastic response to the insurgent challenge being mounted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
So what does Martin O’Malley have to offer?
More, perhaps, than those who seek to police the 2016 presidential competition care to acknowledge.
O’Malley’s poll numbers, nationally and in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire, are low. But so are those of most candidates—announced and unannounced, Democrats and Republicans—at a point in the process where name recognition counts for more than genuine sentiment.
As the positioning begins, O’Malley has two points in his favor: a familiar scenario and a penchant for speaking from the moral high ground.
Let’s begin with the scenario. In the past 40 years, the Democratic Party has elected three presidents. In each case, the party’s nominee was an unexpected (and it might be argued unlikely) contender who did not begin the race as the front-runner. In two cases, 1976 and 1992, the unexpected contender entered the race not as a Washington insider but as a current or former governor. The classic case, of course, was that of Jimmy Carter, a former governor of a mid-sized state who finished his term and then meticulously worked the grassroots of Iowa and New Hampshire while building an argument for himself that was based not just on policy stances but on a promise to bring a sense of moral duty to the White House.
O’Malley is a former governor of a mid-sized state who finished his term and has spent the ensuing months making an argument for himself based not just on policy but on his own embrace of a moral-duty politics.
Yes, yes, of course, 2016 is a different year than 1976. Hillary Clinton is a different front-runner than Henry “Scoop” Jackson. And O’Malley, an urban Irish Catholic, is very different from Carter, a rural evangelical.
Yet, like Carter, O’Malley has made his connections with Democrats not on the basis on insider status and fund-raising prowess (like Clinton) or fiery rhetoric and warnings against oligarchy (like Sanders). O’Malley’s efforts to count himself into the 2016 race have relied on personal interaction (as an always available speaker and campaigner for Democrats in all the key states) and a willingness to attempt a politics of principle.
Like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, O’Malley recognizes that Democrats must claim some moral high ground—rather than simply positioning themselves as savvy technocrats—to prevail in presidential politics. More importantly, O’Malley recognizes that claiming that moral high ground involves taking risks and doing the right thing even when it is not necessarily popular.
O’Malley embraces elements of a Catholic social-justice ethic that will be highlighted as Pope Francis tours the United States this year. The governor is often at his best when he speaks of a duty to address poverty and inequality, and of the need to respect the dignity of work with living-wage pay and workplace fairness. As governor, he acted on these values by, for instance, making Maryland the first state in the nation to require government contractors to pay their employees a living wage and arguing passionately and practically for raising the state’s minimum wage to $10,10 an hour.
That does not mean that O’Malley marches in lockstep with the church; he is pro-choice and he has been a leading advocate of marriage equality; when Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien urged the governor to oppose marriage equality, O’Malley replied, “I do not presume, nor would I ever presume as governor, to question or infringe upon your freedom to define, to preach about, and to administer the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. But on the public issue of granting equal civil marital rights to same-sex couples, you and I disagree.” O’Malley signed the law and then defended it when opponents sought unsuccessfully to overturn the measure with a statewide referendum.
On issues such as repealing the death penalty, supporting the rights of workers to organize, and working to eradicate poverty, O’Malley has taken bold stands that he argues are grounded both in common sense and common morality. He signed a 2013 measure barring prosecutors from seeking death-penalty judgements in Maryland and then commuted the sentences of the four prisoners remaining on Maryland’s death row to life imprisonment.
On immigration, O’Malley created a national stir last summer by speaking about immigration policy in smart, reasonable, and moral terms that put him at odds not merely with many other presidential contenders but with the Obama administration.
O’Malley’s approach was not a radical one. But his emphasis on fairness and human dignity, as opposed to predictable political positioning, was refreshing. O’Malley did not deny the serious practical and political challenges that had arisen as thousands of children from Central America crossed into the United States in the spring and summer of 2014. He recognized that there were a lot of issues to be resolved with regard to the particular circumstances of the children—and with regard to broader need to reform the nation’s ill-defined and frequently dysfunctional approach to immigration policy.
Yet, O’Malley never lost sight of the most important fact: The children who were entering the United States were children. They came, in many instances, as desperate refugees fleeing extreme violence, poverty, and dislocation in countries where the social fabric has been rapidly fraying because of destructive globalization schemes, corruption, and a horrific maldistribution of wealth.
With his argument that the reality of why immigrants flee their own lands must be taken into consideration, O’Malley broke with prominent members of both parties to demand that the response to the plight of the children be a humane and knowing one. “We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death,” O’Malley told reporters at a National Governors Association meeting in Nashville. “I believe that we should be guided by the greatest power we have as a people, and that is the power of our principles. Through all of our great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity.”
The governor’s remarks drew immediate criticism from conservatives who make little secret of their determination to politicize border issues. The Republican-linked group America Rising portrayed O’Malley’s position as a left-wing stance—a “hit from the left” at former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the leader in 2016 Democratic presidential polls.
But O’Malley’s response was grounded not in the language of left or right, nor of predictable political “messaging.” Instead, he placed the debate in a moral context that was rooted in American historical experience. In media interviews, the governor calmly explained, “I believe that it is contrary to everything that we stand for as a people to try to summarily send [refugees] back to death, whether it’s in famine; death whether it’s in the middle of the ocean; death whether it’s in a war-torn area or death in a place where gangs are the greatest threat to stability and the rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere.”
O’Malley was right.
And he was impressive.
Impressive enough to justify his entry into the 2016 race? Absolutely.
Impressive enough to win caucuses and primaries? That very much remains to be seen.
O’Malley will get a hearing, and he will use it well; as he did recently with a knowing discussion of the upheaval in Baltimore: an issue that he knows he must address. The former mayor pushed the margins of the debate with an admission that “The hard, truthful reality is this: Growing numbers of our fellow citizens in American cities across the United States feel unheard, unseen, unrecognized—their very lives un-needed.”
O’Malley is more of a liberal than Clinton and less of a progressive populist than Sanders. He has a track record of successful service that compares favorably with those of Clinton and Sanders, and certainly with those of other Democratic prospects, such as former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee.
O’Malley is younger than the other contenders, and perhaps a bit cooler—if his playing with the Celtic rock band O’Malley’s March counts for anything.
Ultimately, however, it is O’Malley’s comfort with speaking in moral-duty terms, and his willingness to act where necessary and possible upon that sense of moral duty, that has the potential to distinguish him as a 2016 contender. He has not begun to close any deals. In fact, he will have to struggle to open the negotiation with Democrats who will be attracted either to the Clinton juggernaut or to the fire-and-brimstone energy of the Sanders challenge.
But the same might have been said of Jimmy Carter, who spent much of 1975 just trying to be taken seriously. Carter had to wrestle not just with the insider candidacy of Scoop Jackson but with the claims on space to the left staked by Fred Harris, Mo Udall, Frank Church, and, ultimately, Jerry Brown. (And just as in 2015 there are still a good many progressives who hold out hope for the dream candidacy of a senator from Massachusetts named Elizabeth Warren, there were in 1976 a good many progressives who held out hope for the dream candidacy of a senator from Massachusetts named Ted Kennedy.)
Carter made the connection in 1976, becoming not just the outsider nominee but the outsider president. If O’Malley makes a connection in 2016, it will be as a different kind of moral-duty contender—he is more of an insider and, arguably, more politically astute. Yet such a breakthrough would not be entirely unprecedented.
O’Malley sees what he thinks is an opening and he is making his move. More power to him. The race for the 2016 Democratic nomination needs contenders who are willing to push the limits in the debates and in the fight for the heart and soul of the party. Martin O’Malley brings some needed vision, and needed language, to the competition. He should be treated seriously, because of his own record and his own ideas, and because of his party’s history of rejecting front-runners and embracing campaigns that speak a moral-duty language. O’Malley says, “We are still capable of acting like the compassionate, and generous, and caring people our grandparents expected us to become and that our children need for us to be.” That is a morals message, a values message, and it has appeal—not just with Democrats but with a lot of Americans who might vote Democratic.