O’Malley the Very Progressive

I’m pretty aware of the notably progressive features of Martin O’Malley’s tenure as governor of Mlaryland, if only because I carefully read Haley Sweetland Edwards’ 2013 profile of him in the Washington Monthly. But I haven’t heard much about his take on the federal issues he’d confront if he were to run for president, so I was as curious as anyone to read Joan Walsh’s interview with him at Salon.

Despite a firm reluctance to play the spectrum-positioning game, which clearly annoyed Walsh, O’Malley seemed pretty determined to check boxes in the current labor-left economic agenda menu: expanded Social Security benefits, restoring Glass-Steagall, more overtime pay, stronger collective bargaining protections. He didn’t quite take Walsh’s bait to come out against education and training improvements as relevant to economic inequality, but he did accept the premise inequality comes from something more basic than insufficient education. But here’s the moment that really surprised me:

[Walsh]: [T]his term [Obama’s] started to talk more about investment, “we all do better when we all do better…”

[O’Malley]: Paul Wellstone.

Recognizing Paul Wellstone quotes like it’s a Bible quiz is not what I’d expect O’Malley to do. But then you have to understand that my experience with the man was of him as an extremely active member of the DLC for years and years. Now I’m the last person who’s going to tell you a former DLCer cannot authentically move to the left, and the group–or at least some of its members and staff–was never remotely as conservative as its critics claimed. But there weren’t any icons of Paul Wellstone on the walls of the HQ, either.

As Alec MacGillis noted in a negative 2013 column about O’Malley’s suitability for a presidential run, the former mayor and governor has an entrenched habit of using technocratic language to describe what he’s trying to accomplish. That approach can help bridge some ideological divides, to be sure, but ultimately voters don’t march in the streets–or vote in a presidential primary–for better management. Most analysts will say O’Malley is today simply discerning where there is “space” in the Democratic Party for a Clinton alternative or challenger, and it’s definitely among those who want a nominee who’s willing to break definitively with Wall Street and support things like reversing the financial deregulation with which Bill Clinton cooperated in the 1990s.

Can he follow through with that constituency, though? O’Malley didn’t have much to say about foreign policy in his interview with Walsh. But I suspect the same instincts he showed on domestic issues might lead him to say it’s a huge mistake to bring back the Global War on Terror. I’d agree with him if he did. But then I was just the listener, not the speaker, in several Martin O’Malley post-9/11 homeland security speeches which ended with the show-stopper: “They’re here, and they want to kill us.”

Let’s just say the jury’s still out on O’Malley the very Progressive.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.