Martin O’Malley Should Try to Out-Liberal Hillary Clinton

Sigh. It’s tough to endure things like this Henry Enten piece that argue that it’s well-nigh impossible to get to Hillary’s left without being a socialist senator from Vermont. It’s one thing to look at some metrics and some past statements and make an effort to compare former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s historical liberalism to Hillary Clinton’s record. But Enten goes a lot further than this and makes a bunch of mistakes in the process.

Let’s begin with some caveats about the metrics. O’Malley was a governor who never served in Congress. Clinton has never been a governor and her voting record reflects the fact that she served New York State, not the country as a whole. Taking a look at fundraising comes with similar problems, but it’s a valuable exercise. Public pronouncements aren’t tremendously different than voting records in terms of being influenced by whatever constituency you are attempting to serve at the moment. The mayor of Baltimore can be expected to sound more liberal than the governor of Maryland, even if they are the same person at different points in their career. The same is true of a First Lady, senator in the opposition from New York, Secretary of State, and candidate in a hotly contested Democratic presidential primary.

I think we can just put most of these metrics aside. For Hillary Clinton, the best indication of what she will do is what her husband did. This isn’t because they are the same person who would always make the same decisions. It’s because political families are families. They develop loyal patrons, fundraisers, political organizers, endorsers, staff, reporters, opinion leaders, lobbying groups, etc. On the margins, Hillary may differ on tactics. Here or there, she may have a different strategic vision. But House Clinton is still House Clinton, and it isn’t going to shed its skin any more than House Bush is going to shed its skin. I think it’s safe to say that there is a whole lot less daylight between Bill and Hillary Clinton than there was between the two George Bushes.

The biggest difference between Bill and Hillary Clinton isn’t their political inclinations or instincts but the passage of time between their campaigns. Bill Clinton had to run for nation’s highest office in a period of conservative ascendency while Hillary is running on the tale end of a two-term Democratic presidency. The demographics of the country have changed and so, too, have the country’s attitudes on a variety of issues. To put it in the simplest terms, if Bill Clinton were running for president in 2016, he would sound a whole lot more liberal than he did when he ran for president in 1992 and 1996. If Hillary becomes the next president, she’ll have a more liberal agenda than her husband did for a very simple reason: because she can.

This is a filter that we need to apply to the Clintons, and I think it works in their favor for the most part. But not completely. Remember what I said about political families being families? Well, the Clintons attracted a certain strain of supporters in their formative stage precisely because they were willing to break with liberals and liberal interest groups. And these supporters now form the spine of their political machine. Their central nervous system is acclimated to doing battle with the left regardless of what either of them might choose to say out of political expediency today. Can Team Clinton ever truly play nice with the core of the Obama coalition?

I don’t think it has to be a relationship fraught with conflict and ill-feelings, but I also don’t think you can get the Rahm Emanuel wing of the party to ever play nice with the Bill de Blasio wing, or vice-versa.

Now, I don’t think Martin O’Malley is entrenched in either of these camps, but it’s certainly possible for him to reach out to the de Blasio camp and offer to be their champion. I don’t see how he is really constricted in this by any past statements and he needs to build a much broader donor base for himself anyway, so it’s not like he’d be cutting off his nose to spite his face.

Let me be careful here to be clear about what I’m criticizing. If Enten wants to argue that O’Malley is not going to win the Democratic nomination because the left is by and large happy with Hillary Clinton, I agree with that analysis. It’s highly unlikely that anyone can do enough damage to Clinton to cost her her chance at the general election. If she doesn’t make it, it will be some group of problems of her own making that causes her downfall.

But Enten is making a different argument, which is that it doesn’t make any sense for O’Malley to approach this contest by carving out a position to Clinton’s left. But that’s the only thing that makes sense. It worked for Obama, and it can work again. And the reason it worked for Obama was because Team Clinton occupies the center-left with all their hawkish foreign policy goals and willingness to break with liberal orthodoxy.

If you ask an old hand how to run a political campaign, they’ll tell you that people want to feel like a candidate understands their problems and is on their side, and they don’t like politicians who flip-flop or change positions. Hillary Clinton’s strength is the strength of the Clinton brand. But it’s also her weakness. If you’re McDonald’s and the people want health food, you have a problem.

For O’Malley, it could be that his record makes him look like Burger King, but no one knows that. His brand is undeveloped. Howard Dean’s brand was undeveloped, too, which is why he briefly caught fire with liberals despite his ‘A’ rating from the National Rifle Association and other centrist proclivities.

Enten thinks that O’Malley lacks a signature issue to take to the left and doubts that anti-Wall Street populism offers an answer. My question is, then why is Elizabeth Warren so wildly popular?

Whatever his prior rhetoric, O’Malley has some serious liberal credentials, including on abolishing the death penalty and legalizing gay marriage. What he lacks is the voice of a progressive. He sounds too technocratic, like Michael Dukakis. So, how to solve that?

Start talking like a progressive.

It’s a no-brainer.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.