O’Malley is “In.” What Does He Bring to the Table?

Martin O’Malley has done the expected and joined the 2016 Democratic presidential race. His weaknesses are obvious: lack of a national platform and persona, as well as a troubled legacy in Baltimore. There’s not necessarily a whole lot of room to maneuver between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton–but then again, in a race where the GOP is fielding a veritable clown car of nearly indistinguishable candidates, it’s not implausible for a largely successful governor to throw his hat into a ring that currently features only current and former Senators.

O’Malley’s chief claim to fame is basic technocratic competence. As Haley Edwards wrote here at Washington Monthly in 2013, O’Malley has much he can point to on that front:

The truth is, what makes O’Malley stand out is not his experience, his gravitas, nor his familiarity to voters (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden crush him in those regards). Nor is it exactly his policies or speeches (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, both rumored presidential aspirants, have cultivated similar CVs). Nor is it that he plays in a band. Nor is it even the Atlantic’s breathless claim last year that he has “the best abs” in politics. (Beneath a photo of the fit governor participating in the Maryland Special Olympics’ annual Polar Bear Plunge, the author gushed, “What are they putting in the water in Maryland?”) Instead, what makes O’Malley unique as a politician is precisely the skill that was on display in that windowless conference room in downtown Annapolis: he is arguably the best manager working in government today.

That may not seem like a very flashy title—at first blush, “Best Manager” sounds more like a booby prize than a claim a politician might ride to the White House. But in an era where the very idea of government is under assault, a politician’s capacity to deliver on his or her promises, to actually make the bureaucracy work, is an underappreciated skill.

O’Malley’s most famous competence trademark is a fondness for statistics-based governance–an inclination that fits well with big data currently in vogue in both big data and government. But that approach also carries major problems with it. O’Malley’s most consequential stats-based initiative was in Baltimore policing. It was an approach that appeared at first to drive down crime rates, but was ultimately counterproductive and led police departments to increase brutality and pointless arrests in order to juice the numbers. And in education “reform,” the impulse to fix education by applying a big-data standardized testing approach has been little more than a disaster.

Politically speaking, O’Malley has certainly been on the right side of hot-button issues like marriage equality and gun control. But Hillary Clinton already has that space covered. Where O’Malley can stand out from the field is by claiming the mantle of Warren/Sanders economic populism, but in a somewhat more electable package than Sanders offers. Would that work? Possibly, or possibly not.

But as Martin Longman notes, it certainly can’t hurt to have more than one candidate on Ms. Clinton’s economic left. It would only add to the weight of the argument and force the issue during debates. At worst, should Clinton win the White House and govern as an economic centrist, progressives would be able to point out that she’s no liberal compared to O’Malley’s example.

In any case, it’s up to O’Malley to determine the message he wants to bring to the race and prove himself a viable and interesting alternative.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.