Dark Horse

For 2016, Take Martin O’Malley Seriously

The Maryland governor is a problem-solver and a social-justice Catholic who can transcend the left-right divide. Keep an eye on him.

As Martin O’Malley dips his ankles into the deep end of national politics – most recently with his full-throated plea earlier this month against the deportation of immigrant children — I recalled the first time I saw him on a national stage.

I had a pretty good view: I was standing right next to him.

The two of us were being paraded as rising stars by the Democratic Leadership Council at the 2000 Democratic National Convention -- and even featured together on the cover of The New Democrat magazine.

Alas … may the DLC rest in peace. (So too with my own political career.) But give the late Third Way vanguard some crystal ball credit: O’Malley could be the next President of the United States.

In his potential White House run, however, O’Malley won’t be pursuing the DLC’s lurch-to-the-center path. Nor will he be following the liberal orthodoxy. Indeed, it’s the Maryland Governor’s uniquely post-Clinton, post-Obama positioning that makes him this handicapper’s pick to emerge as the dark horse with the most potent stretch kick in the 2016 presidential derby.

The most compelling reason? As O’Malley demonstrated in the immigration debate, he’s the rare progressive to frame his strongly felt policy positions in the language of faith. It’s the passionate application of universal moral values by this devout Catholic that has the potential to upend the usual partisan and ideological categories that are choking today’s body politic.

I sat down with O’Malley on July 11, a few hours after he stole the platform at the National Governors’ Association annual conference in Nashville and broke with the President by forcefully and emotionally calling for a more compassionate policy on the treatment of Central American children who’ve recently come to the United States illegally: “It is contrary to everything we stand for to try to summarily send children back to death.”

With the potential primary still flooded with fluid contingencies, O’Malley demurs about the prospects of challenging Hillary Clinton. "I haven't even decided if I'm running yet, so I'm not thinking about other potential candidates,” he told me. “I'm focused on governing Maryland, helping Democrats win in 2014, and preparing responsibly so that I can make a decision when the time is right."

O’Malley’s record as governor of Maryland, and before that mayor of Baltimore, provides plenty of manna to nourish starving progressives. Long before his immigration comments, the Governor punched through a succession of liberal hot-buttons: Marriage equality? Check. Gun control? Check. Death penalty repeal? Check. Decriminalizing pot and legalizing medical marijuana? Check and check. Some might argue that he’s even been too liberal for solid blue Maryland. In fact, some do, and vociferously: Discontented residents of four western counties have been pushing an initiative for months to secede from the rest of the state.

O’Malley has ticked off plenty of liberals as well. Inheriting a $1.7 billion structural deficit and then plunging into the headwinds of the Great Recession, the Governor pushed through more than $9.5 billion in budget cuts, requiring sizable state employee layoffs, and the downsizing of critical health and transportation programs. And the state’s largest public employee unions expressed considerable displeasure with O’Malley’s signature pension reform efforts

Overall, however, O’Malley can point to a fiscal track record that most progressives would embrace: investing record sums in education to produce the nation’s top ranked public schools five years in a row and lowest college tuition hikes since 2007; expanding the earned income tax credit and increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour; and recovering all of the jobs lost in the national recession.

Of course, you can’t win enough electoral votes in our purple nation by tacking completely left — especially in 2016, when Obama fatigue likely will be weighing on the nation.

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But O’Malley understands that the left/right/center paradigm isn’t important to the Americans who actually determine our national elections in today’s deeply polarized polity. Swing voters and independents aren’t clamoring for moderation or centrism: They are looking for leaders who will put aside party and ideology on occasion and actually get stuff done.

Over the past few years, the national bi-partisan grassroots organization No Labels (I’m a co-founder) has been polling and focus-grouping these voters. Our surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Americans are looking not at party or ideology; but rather for problem-solving. And O’Malley can make a plausible case that he’s been a problem-solver above all.

Time’s best mayor of 2005 and Governing’s public official of 2009 has defined his brand as a stickler for non-partisan, data-driven management and administrative competence. In his coming out speech in Iowa – keynoting this June’s state Democratic convention — O’Malley devoted several minutes to discussing the technocratic approach he used to fight crime: “When I was elected mayor in 1999 … Baltimore had become the most violent, most addicted, most abandoned city in America … So we set out to make our city work again. We saw trash in our streets and alleys, so we picked it up every day. We saw open air drug markets, and we began to relentlessly close them down … Over the next 10 years, Baltimore went on to achieve the biggest reduction in part 1 crime of any major city in America.”

He has used the same non-ideological approach on issues ranging from biotechnology and aerospace to roads, bridges, transit projects, new schools, and rural broadband connectivity.

But the most interesting thing about O’Malley is his exploration of an intriguing, heart-centered strategy that could potentially shake up our national political paradigm: using the language of faith and universal moral values to ground public policy. Republicans have owned the faith space since the Reagan era. Presidential candidate Barack Obama tried valiantly to take it back in 2008, but after the embarrassment of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the right wing’s maniacal campaign to brand him a Muslim, Obama’s rhetorical strategy was mostly abandoned.

O’Malley appears to be reaching to pick up the scepter. The regular weekday Mass attendee — who brings to mind the beer-drinking, Irish Catholic everyman rather than the pious moral scold — described his religious beliefs to me as the underpinning of his public vocation. He referred me to a speech he delivered to his high school alma mater way back in 2002 in which he connected his Catholic education with his passion for problem solving:

“I learned … to search for Christ in the faces of others including, and especially, the faces of the poor, the faces of the homeless men who lined up for a meal every morning alongside the foundations of this church … I learned … to recognize and confront the enemy within – the original sin of our own culture and environment that would have us think less of people who – because of race, or class, or place – are not like us … And I learned that it is not enough to have faith, you must also have the courage to risk action on that faith, to risk failure upon that faith: the faith that one person can make a difference and that each of us must try.”

It’s no wonder, then, that he grounded his angry denunciation of Obama’s immigration policy in the faith tradition: “Through all of the great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity. … It is a belief that unites all of us.”

Note that he didn’t mention his Christianity, nor even the slightly more politically correct construct of “Judeo-Christian values.” Instead, he reached to a broader audience, with the understanding that all religious and spiritual traditions in world history share at their core the same universal moral values, of welcoming the stranger and loving one’s neighbor — of compassion and community. This appeal to unity — to a common higher ground — can potentially disrupt the GOP’s monopoly on faith, without frightening religious minorities, or even agnostics, from the Democratic fold.

Most significantly, by embracing shared moral values, O’Malley might even find the path to counter today’s dominant politics of self-interest that underlies both Tea Party libertarianism and the more cynical, transactional-based politics that serves as Washington’s greatest bi-partisan consensus.

Perhaps that’s enough dreaming. Back here in the real world of politics, O’Malley has quite an arduous journey ahead of him, especially if Clinton decides to run. He can expect bruising personal and professional scrutiny from a cruel and punishing new media, which may constrain his ability to define himself and articulate the vision. Most pertinently, recent critical focus on a Baltimore jail scandal and Obamacare’s rocky roll out in Maryland could directly undermine both his problem-solver and moral paladin narratives.

But at least from my vantage point, Martin O’Malley could be the right messenger with the right message. And the rising star still standing just might be in the best position to offer some elixir to our deeply ailing political system.