The Progressive Impersonator

Martin O’Malley wants to be the liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton. It’s a good strategy for an actual liberal.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley speaks during the 2015 Alfred K. Whitehead Legislative Conference and Presidential Forum, March 10, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Sunday, Martin O’Malley made his first real jab at Hillary Clinton. “The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families,” he said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week. He continued: “I believe that there are new perspectives that are needed in order for us to solve the problems that we face as Americans … I believe that new leadership is needed.”

O’Malley wants to be that new leadership, but in everything that matters, he’s far behind Clinton. He trails in the polls, he trails in fundraising, and he trails in party support. But the former Maryland governor knows he’s not going to overcome Clinton with resources. His plan is to stand as a liberal alternative for Democrats who want a more populist alternative to Clinton’s modest, center-left agenda, and hope that—like in 2008—Clinton loses her grip on inevitability.

It’s why, after a career of technocratic liberalism, he’s begun speaking like Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “Over the last 12 years, wages have been going down, not up,” said O’Malley during an event in Iowa last week. “In fact, last year, Wall Street bonuses alone were double the combined earnings of every single American working for minimum wage to take care of their family. Until we solve this problem, we cannot rest—as a party or as a people.”

For O’Malley to be the liberal alternative, however, he has to be liberal, or at least, more-so than Clinton. But not only is O’Malley close to Clinton on the ideological map of the Democratic Party, he might even be a little to her right. At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten scores the governor across two dimensions—his fundraising and his public statements—and compares him to similar scores from Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which also include their congressional voting records.

On a scale of 100 (most liberal) to –100 (most conservative), O’Malley scores a 33, which makes him a moderate liberal along the lines of Howard Dean in the 2004 election. But this isn’t as liberal as Sanders, who scores a 61, or even Hillary Clinton, who scores a 50, making her substantially more liberal than her progressive challenger-in-the-making. A different scale, from political data group Crowdpac, shows a similar picture. On their scale, Sanders is much more liberal than Clinton, who is slightly more liberal than O’Malley.

On its own, this isn’t as big a stumbling block as it looks. Barack Obama made himself the liberal alternative in 2008 despite holding the same basic positions as Clinton. The difference is that then, liberals had organized their politics around a single, powerful issue—the Iraq War. As an early opponent of the war, Obama could harness the energy of an anti-war primary electorate and distinguish himself from competitors like Sen. John Edwards, who had the stature of a vice presidential nomination and a much more liberal vision for public policy.

That kind of issue doesn’t exist in 2015. Yes, inequality is salient to many Democratic voters, but it doesn’t carry the same fire as the Iraq War. Or at least it could, if you had rhetorical skill. But for all of his qualities, O’Malley doesn’t have rhetorical skill. He’s the Seymour Skinner of the Democratic Party: More comfortable with budgets than stories, more fluent in the language of utility than he is in the poetry of a campaign.

“During the Obamacare debate,” wrote Alec MacGillis for Slate last month, “he chided Democrats who ‘immediately run to the values of caring and fairness’ instead of focusing on the economic case for health care reform.” His case against tax cuts for the rich is about “doing the things that work,” and—in the words of a middlebrow corporate consultant—he wants America to be an “opportunity-expanding entity.” No, O’Malley might not put an audience to sleep, but you’d still want the smelling salts, just in case.

In fairness, we could ignore O’Malley’s problems with rhetoric and ideology if he were a daring leader for Maryland in his eight years as governor. The reality, however, is that he was often a follower in Annapolis; his progressive record has as much to do with liberal Democratic majorities in the state legislature as it does with his own ideas and approach.

None of this is to say there isn’t space in the Democratic primary for O’Malley, and he certainly knows what liberals want to hear. In the last month, he’s called for tougher sanctions on banks and a reinstated Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that separated commercial and investment banking. And in an interview with Salon, he stressed a need for policies that “reward hard work and … rein in reckless speculation that becomes destructive or predatory.”

But compared to Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or even the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, O’Malley isn’t especially compelling. And without a more progressive persona or at least better speechwriting, it’s hard to see how he gets anyone’s attention, much less topples the Democratic establishment.