Martin O’Malley is running a serious race for the presidency, in which he has courageously defended immigrants, refugees, and Muslims while arguing for bold gun-control policies. But do contemporary politics reward seriousness and courage? As one of three remaining Democratic contenders—with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—O’Malley gets good reviews for debate performances and speeches. Yet the former Maryland governor’s poll numbers are modest. Undaunted, he tells John Nichols that “the politics of higher purpose” can prevail. 

John Nichols: You speak often of politics in terms of moral duty. That’s an echo of the Catholic social-justice tradition. But it also reflects your sense of how to get things done.

Martin O’Malley: Yes, the politics of higher purpose—that’s what’s always drawn me to public service. I believe that the power of politics isn’t money. It’s the beliefs that unite us, when they are actually tapped—when a leader is willing to make him- or herself vulnerable for the sake of those values. I’m the only one in this race who’s again and again staked my political future on issues of principle, whether it was driver’s licenses for new immigrants, the Dream Act, or ending the death penalty. When we moved to repeal the death penalty, there wasn’t a single adviser in my circle who said, “This is really great politics.”

JN: You often put immigrant rights, ending the death penalty, taking on the NRA, and other issues in a moral context. Do you see this as a way to break gridlock?

MO: I think there’s a yearning right now, a desire in our country for a politics of higher purpose. I do believe that people want a leader who will speak to the goodness within us and not pander to fears. The politics of fear and division is a very simple calculus. Short-term, it can really make candidates all the fashion rage. But I’ve never found that fear and anger and division is the stuff that builds up a nation.

JN: Has Pope Francis made it easier to address issues in this way?

MO: Yes, the pope has made it a lot easier.… In the bad old days, the archbishop of Baltimore sent me a cease-and-desist letter because he heard that I’d be making marriage equality one of my top legislative priorities that year. I sent him back a very succinct letter that encapsulated my thinking. I said, “Look, on many, many issues—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, all these corporeal works of mercy—we agree. But on this one, we are going to have to disagree.” With this pope, it’s been a huge difference. Especially as a Catholic politician, to have someone giving a broader context to the range of public-policy choices that we make [is meaningful].

JN: You’ve put out position papers and spoken on issues—like Puerto Rico’s debt crisis—that do not get discussed much. In such a volatile year, does this detail-oriented approach get noticed?

MO: We’ll see. I’m betting that people actually have a much deeper interest in and curiosity about these public-policy questions—and the answers…. It’s a slower boil, because some of these things are more complex than simply one bumper-sticker phrase.

JN: What’s the bumper-sticker phrase that describes you ideologically? Liberal? Progressive?

MO: I’m fine with “liberal”; I’m fine with “progressive.” I tend more toward “progressive” because one of the distinguishing factors among the three of us as candidates—in terms of our experience—is that while the other two have talked about things they wanted to get done, I’ve actually gotten these things done. Some of them—like repealing the death penalty, getting marriage equality—I could not have done without Republican votes. You don’t get progressive things done by clinging to divisive old ideologies, and you don’t do it by declaring all Republicans your enemies. You do it by being clear about your principles [and] pulling people together.

JN: How do you distinguish your approach from Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism?

MO: I don’t think that to fix capitalism you need to replace it with socialism. I believe that, actually, American capitalism can work. In fact, it worked very, very well for [much of the history] of our country. It’s been manipulated. It’s been twisted. Many aspects of [what worked] have been cast aside, like wage and labor policies. Tax codes have been manipulated to concentrate wealth at the very top. The big banks—for us to still be on the hook to bail them out when they make bad bets, that’s not capitalism; that’s not “Make a risk, take a chance, get a return, win, lose, it’s on you.” That’s the rigged game that Elizabeth Warren talked about. All of these are things to be changed, that need to be addressed. But I’m with de Tocqueville: I think Americans love change, but they hate revolution. This is change we’re talking about.

JN: At Netroots Nation, Black Lives Matter activists challenged you on your Baltimore record and demanded specifics on issues of policing and mass incarceration. Did that make you a better candidate?

MO: Well, sure. There’s no progress without adversity, for a people or a person. Even for all of the service I’ve offered, and all of the good things we’ve done in both Baltimore and the state of Maryland, none of us as white people can ever fully appreciate the constant sense of vulnerability that our black neighbors live with in our country. I’m on a constant learning curve. I’m always trying to get better, to deepen my own personal understanding so I can be of greater service.

JN: When you talk about your differences with Hillary Clinton on foreign policy, you frequently mention the unintended consequences of regime change.

MO: Regime change is not the drive-through window at McDonald’s; it does not necessarily yield the better result, especially when we haven’t prepared our own people for the patient follow-up that’s required and when we didn’t prepare them for the cost of war going in.

JN: How does that apply to Syria?

MO: The challenge right now is to get a [plan] that puts ISIS as the first priority and change in regime as the second priority.

JN: After battling for more debates, you’re now onstage with just Clinton and Sanders. How does this new dynamic alter the campaign?

MO: That’s huge for us—to be one of three, and to be able to make that generational contrast.

JN: Can you win this nomination?

MO: I believe I will win this race. Our party always gravitates to the future. You’d have to go back to 1856 to find the time when our party nominated a challenger for the White House who won and who was over 60. We cannot be this dissatisfied with our polarized, gridlocked national politics—and an economy where 70 percent of us are working harder but not getting ahead—and believe that a resort to a polarized figure from our past or a divisive ideology is going to bring us forward. I believe that we are going to win this by speaking to where our country’s going, not to where it has been.