Democratic Electability Arguments

Greg Sargent explains something about Martin O’Malley’s argument for himself as against Hillary Clinton that is a bit subtle: he’s arguing that he can connect better with liberal under-40 voters not just because his age is closer to theirs, but because he’s not some sort of late adapter to progressive politics.

O’Malley’s implicit argument seems to be that he is better equipped than Clinton to speak to a younger generation of voters who are firmly in favor of more accommodating policies towards undocumented immigrants and gays, and who have concluded that climate change is a real threat that requires a real response. Of course, O’Malley faces an immediate problem: Clinton mostly agrees with him on these issues. She has proposed to build on Obama’s executive actions shielding millions from deportation, and has pledged to defend all of his actions on climate.

And so O’Malley has argued that Clinton has belatedly come around on immigration, declaring support of drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants after opposing the idea in 2008. On climate, O’Malley has come out against the Keystone pipeline; Clinton has not taken a position on it. On gay marriage, O’Malley notes that Clinton evolved on the issue only recently, whereas he helped push through legalization of marriage equality as governor.

As O’Malley has put it, “leadership is about making the right decision…before sometimes it becomes entirely popular.” The basic idea seems to be that O’Malley is more in tune with the cultural priorities of a new generation of Democrats, and less encumbered by the sort of caution that older-line Dems have historically felt about the political risks in embracing them.

Greg thinks HRC isn’t as vulnerable to the argument that she’s been out of step with progressives as she was in 2008, when her Iraq War vote stood out as a symbol. But there’s the other problem that O’Malley hasn’t exactly been a model of ideological consistency. On a list-serv earlier today I saw someone making others aware of a joint WaPo op-ed O’Malley did in 2007 with Harold Ford–then chairman of the DLC–defending party centrists against the criticism of those who would appeal to “the party faithful.”

Now as it happens, in 2007 Ford was not the parody of the Wall Street Democrat he later became; matter of fact, nearly a year later, when I was still working part-time for the DLC, I accompanied Ford to a Netroots Nation conference after Markos Moulitsas had attended a DLC event (I was his chaperon as well) at Ford’s invitation. But the fact remains that a lot of people listening to O’Malley question HRC’s ideological bona fides knew him before he was an ideological virgin. If consistency is the main standard for reaching younger progressives, then I’d say Bernie Sanders, despite his age, might have an advantage.

The larger question, to which I have no definitive answer, is whether the bigger challenge for Democrats in 2016 is hanging onto Obama-level percentages among young voters or doing better among over-65 voters where they’ve been getting killed–or perhaps something else like avoiding Republican inroads among Latinos (which should not be a problem if one of about 16 of the 18 Republican presidential candidates gets the nomination). The clearer O’Malley can be about who he can appeal to in a general election, the better; Republicans aren’t the only party where electability is an issue.

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.