Martin O'Malley Faces the Wonk's Dilemma

The former Maryland governor is winning the ideas race but not the campaign.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley introduces US President Barack Obama at Prince Georges Community College on September 26, 2013 in Largo, Maryland.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley introduces US President Barack Obama at Prince Georges Community College on September 26, 2013 in Largo, Maryland.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Some 20 major candidates are running for president in 2016, but just one of them has put his name to a series of detailed policy proposals that activists in his base call "fantastic" and "great" and "moving the debate forward."

The problem? That candidate is stuck at 1 or 2 percent in the polls.

Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, is suffering from paltry support in a Democratic field dominated by Hillary Clinton (who leads by about 50 points). Her closest challenger: Bernie Sanders, who has surged to 15 percent as he wows large crowds. The 73-year-old Vermont senator's rise has vexed O'Malley, who always expected to be the liberal alternative to Clinton, and whose aides privately lament that virtually nobody knows who he is.

And yet O'Malley is leading the battle of ideas in his field. He's the first candidate to release detailed policy proposals on key issues like climate change (he proposes to phase out fossil fuels by 2050), immigration (he advocates the most far-reaching executive actions any candidate has suggested to help undocumented people, whom he calls "New Americans"), cracking down on Wall Street (he'd break up big banks and tightening regulations) and making college debt-free for students. The proposals, which buck the trend of candidates avoiding policy specificity, have earned praise from progressive wonks who follow those issues.

"These policy positions that Martin O'Malley is putting out here are fantastic," said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy For America, a progressive advocacy group founded by Howard Dean.

On Wall Street reform, O'Malley goes beyond the standard populist call to split up the largest financial firms; he's delving into details like deferred prosecution deals at the Justice Department and on having the president appoint the Federal Reserve's general counsel.

On immigration, O'Malley stretches beyond the current debate over who to shield from deportation and takes on issues less conducive to sound bites but extremely important to the immigrant community. For instance, he proposes to expand access to waivers so undocumented immigrants don't have to spend as many as 10 years out of the country before getting right with the law, and to make Obamacare subsidies available to recipients of executive relief from deportation.

On education, he offers a swath of pointed ideas to slash college tuition and non-tuition costs, including by boosting Pell Grants and letting the best students graduate more quickly.

Policy nerd

"It's great that he's coming out with detailed progressive proposals now and moving the debate forward," said Nick Berning, a spokesman for MoveOn.org, calling O'Malley's ideas "responsive to where not just the progressive base is, but voters across America are."

The approach suits the former governor and ex-Baltimore mayor, a policy nerd at heart who speaks fondly about his love of "data-driven governing." He boasts about the initiatives he took to reduce storm-water runoff and improve sewer treatment plants. Excited yet?

Well, that reveals the limitations for O'Malley. He has yet to communicate his ideas in a way that strikes a chord with voters who don't follow the minutiae of public policy, progressives say.

"You don't win elections on a white paper," Chamberlain said.

O'Malley's case for the presidency isn't conducive to sound bites. He lacks the résumé of the former secretary of state, senator and first lady, nor does he have her history-making appeal of becoming the nation's first female president. He lacks the charisma of the fiery socialist from Vermont, who has enchanted progressives with his calls for a political revolution to topple a billionaire class he says is buying elections to further rig the system against the middle class.

Chamberlain said Democracy For America is seeing lots of support for Clinton and Sanders but "we're not seeing huge amounts of support for O'Malley, but some of that's because he hasn't broken through yet." He doesn't have Clinton's star power, or Sanders' talent for channeling progressive energy. "People around America are angry at Wall Street, angry at corporations. Bernie does a great job of tapping into that anger... He's never compromised. He has the authenticity. What O'Malley is missing is an ability to really tap into that and make clear that he gets it."

O'Malley's pitch is that he's the only candidate with executive experience and a proven track record of progressive results; as governor of Maryland he signed into law same-sex marriage, gun controls, assistance for undocumented immigrants and initiatives to fight climate change.

Passive-aggressive

Another thing O'Malley's aides are working hard to highlight is his tendency to speak out first on issues, which his campaign uses to paint Clinton as an opportunist. He was first to endorse bankruptcy protections for Puerto Rico; when Clinton eventually took the same position, O'Malley's campaign released a passive-aggressive statement about how his views are based on principle and "not based on polling." He was also the first to call for gun control after the Charleston shootings at a historic black church, and publicly backed same-sex marriage before his rivals.

But again, that has limited resonance with voters at this stage. "People are looking at the substance of proposals, not necessarily the speed at which they're released," said Berning. "I frankly don't think voters care if he comes out with them first or not."

But why do progressive Democrats trust Sanders over O'Malley? It's not just style; Sanders has been preaching progressive economic ideas long before they were in vogue, while O'Malley, Chamberlain contends, has a "spotty" record on progressive economic issues. His evidence? Back in 2007 O'Malley was praising the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that sought to steer the party rightward and fell so far out of favor that it shut down in 2011.

In recent years, though, O'Malley has unabashedly taken up the progressive mantle on issues that matter to the base. After the release of his immigration blueprint, Juan González, a columnist and co-host of the progressive news program Democracy Now, was bullish that O'Malley's star would soon shine brighter.

"My sense is that once people start to hear him in some of the debates, his support is going to grow," González said. "He’s certainly much more to the left of Hillary Clinton and somewhat more charismatic, and perhaps less threatening to many in the establishment than a Bernie Sanders. And I think he’s going to grow considerably in support as time goes on."

Despite his slow start, O'Malley's campaign insists he's where he needs to be.

"Governor O'Malley is doing what he set out to do, which is to lay out a bold progressive vision for the country. He's seeing the enthusiasm for his ideas and he's laying down a challenge for every other candidate to meet," said O'Malley spokeswoman Haley Morris. "Right now it's July. We're not trying to win the July caucus."

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