Martin O'Malley: Can a progressive work with the other side?

Martin O'Malley is willing to acknowledge that to make any headway requires compromise. That may be why he's having trouble getting traction in the polls. 

Cheryl Senter/AP
Democratic presidential candidate former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley at a conversation with students forum at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, N.H., on Oct. 16, 2015.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley hit the campaign hustings in New Hampshire last Thursday, hoping to build momentum off what most observers thought was a strong, if overshadowed, debate performance last Tuesday, and your intrepid blogger was there to chronicle the event. 

The event, held at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, drew a standing room only crowd of about 200 (when I tweeted out that total during the event, a Twitter follower [and likely Sanders supporter] tweeted back: “That’s a large crowd?”) In contrast to the Kasich NH event I attended, which attracted mostly middle-aged people, this crowd was composed primarily of students, which is not surprising given the location. But it is also the case that O’Malley is really targeting this age demographic, as he seeks to supplant Bernie Sanders as the main Democratic alternative to Hillary Clinton. Most of the O’Malley staff there were also young, and they were busy taking names and handing out swag (I scored a nice O’Malley Blue thermal sleeve.)

O’Malley was wearing a dress shirt and tie, with sleeves slightly rolled up, and was greeted with polite applause as entered the room. He opened with a short – perhaps 10 minute – stump speech touting his record as governor, and as mayor of Baltimore, before taking questions, which covered a number of topics, ranging from climate change to combating racial bias to protecting union rights. In citing his record, he started by emphasizing his data-driven approach to governing both as Baltimore’s mayor (“City Stats”) and as governor, in which he pushed hard to get better measures of problems, such as the types and sources of crime, in order to better craft and target potential solutions. In O’Malley’s telling, that data-driven approach has been adopted by many other state governments, and serves as a model of how he would govern as president.

In parsing O’Malley’s answers to questions, it is becomes immediately clear what his campaign strategy is – and why he has had trouble gaining polling traction. For the most part, O’Malley is staking out positions that appeal to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (his critics in Maryland labeled him a traditional “tax and spend liberal”), but he does so in a way that acknowledges that there are usually two sides to every issue, and that any effort to find solutions must involve working with the other side. For example, in response to a question about the need for stronger gun control, O’Malley noted that as Maryland’s governor he signed into law one of the toughest gun control bills in the nation. Among its provisions, it banned several types of assault weapons, limited gun magazine size, instituted fingerprint checks for hand gun purchases, and generally earned the ire of the NRA. (You will recall that in Tuesday’s debate O’Malley cited the National Rifle Association as the political enemy of which he’s most proud.) As O’Malley told the story, however, he laid the groundwork for passing this legislation by first meeting with the state’s hunters to make it clear that he had no intention of taking away their guns. (It is worth noting that the legislation was passed by a Democrat-controlled state legislature.)

O’Malley’s record on gun control is arguably stronger than that of any one of the Democrats in the campaign and makes a potentially appealing contrast with Sanders who, you will recall, found himself on the defensive during Tuesday’s debate over several gun-related votes he made while serving in Congress. (Notably, when asked by Anderson Cooper whether Sanders was tough enough on guns, Clinton replied, “No, not at all.”) And, in fact, on a number of issues – raising the minimum wage, support for same-sex marriage, raising corporate taxes – O’Malley has staked out positions that progressive Democrats should find appealing. As yet, however, he has not been able to attract much support in the polls. Nationally, the HuffingtonPost aggregate polling has him fourth, with less than 2% support.

He’s not doing much better in New Hampshire, where he also languishes in fourth place, with less than 2% polling support.

As I watched O’Malley make his case to the students, it struck me that one reason why he has yet to attract more support is his willingness to acknowledge that to make any headway toward the goals he espouses requires compromising with those whose views with which they may not agree. Again and again during Thursday’s event, he touted his ability as executive – whether as mayor or governor – to bring opposing sides together to get things done. Moreover, he did so in a relatively understated manner; although O’Malley showed flashes of humor, for the most part he makes his points in a low-key classroom lecturing style. This is in sharp contrast to Sanders’s fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners assault on the “billionaire class.” For many potential voters, particularly younger ones, who are fed up with politics as usual, I can see why Sanders’s sense of moral clarity and outrage is particularly appealing. As one commenter to a previous post wrote, “Clinton is all about the ‘What’ and the ‘How;’ Bernie is all about the ‘Why’.” That is, Bernie’s appeal is based in part on his ability to make the case for why economic inequality is unfair. I think the commenter’s point about Clinton also applies to O’Malley – as a former executive, he is acutely aware that progress only comes through compromise, and therefore the “why” is often not enough – one has to understand how to build support for issues by bridging differences, rather than attacking opponents. This invariably means compromise – a dirty word to those who base their fight on principle and moral clarity. Now, one can argue that O’Malley can talk-the-talk regarding the need to compromise, but he didn’t necessarily walk-the-walk. When he stepped down after his second term as governor, critics suggested that while O’Malley was able to almost eliminate the huge state budget deficit he inherited when taking office, he did so largely by raising taxes, rather than reducing spending. This alienated enough voters to propel long-shot Republican Larry Hogan into office as his replacement. So he wasn’t nearly as willing to reach out for compromise as he suggests.

To date, O’Malley has made 17 visits, spending about 20 days, in the Granite State, but with little to show so far. It’s hard to see whether he will get a short-term boost based on Tuesday’s debate – the first NH post-debate poll has him at 3% and debate metrics indicate that he spoke for only 18 minutes at Tuesday’s debate – more than 10 minutes less than Clinton or Sanders. O’Malley noted during the campaign event that Cooper told him beforehand that he would not get as much podium time as either Clinton or Sanders. (Not surprisingly, given her strong debate performance, Clinton has moved into a tie with Sanders in New Hampshire, although I remind you of the usual caveats of relying on a single poll to gauge voter sentiments.) But there are five more debates to go. To break through, O’Malley’s task is to persuade voters that he shares Sanders’s moral outrage toward the inequities – economic, social, and racial – that afflict society, but that he has a better track record at addressing those inequities. At the same time, he needs to convince them that he is not carrying any of the trust issues and negative baggage associated with Clinton’s candidacy. This is a tall order, particularly given how little money he has been able to raise so far. That’s all the more reason for him to take advantage of the remaining debates to position himself as the realistic alternative to Hillary Clinton. But it would help his case if the debate moderators gave him equal time.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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