CONCORD, N.H.—Martin O’Malley had just delivered a 10-minute talk to a few dozen Merrimack County Democrats, then spent 15 minutes walking from handshake to handshake, compliment to compliment. Voters born in Maryland, which O’Malley governed as a Democrat for eight years, wanted to tell him what a nice job he’d done. Educators wanted to bend his ear about the state’s soaring test scores. A man with a camera mounted on a pole introduced himself as the host of a public access show and asked if the Democrats would at least have some presidential debates. O’Malley pledged that they would.
Then came Charles Pewitt. Heavily bearded, a battered New England Patriots cap hooding his eyes, Pewitt had a way of finding candidates in unprotected habitats. He walked over to O’Malley and announced the topic of his question.
“Immigration,” said Pewitt.
“Immigration,” O’Malley repeated. “Well, I’m in favor of immigration reform. But let me hear your question.”
“Well, OK,” said Pewitt. “Start with the bill in the Senate, which passed in June of 2013, S744. Some people call it the illegal alien amnesty mass immigration surge bill.”
Two cameramen, who had been intermittently filming O’Malley’s speech and conversations, wheeled around and turned on their lights.
“This bill would give legal status to approximately 12 to 20 million illegal aliens, and also it would create a massive surge in legal immigration,” said Pewitt. “Don’t you think, as a Democrat, that would reduce wages for workers in the United States? George Borjas, of Harvard, claims quite strongly that mass immigration lowers wages. And Hal Salzman of Rutgers says that the H1B visas, which were going to be piled into that S744 bill, would lower wages for STEM workers. How can the Democratic Party, which is supposed to speak up for workers, be for immigration, when it lowers wages and displaces U.S. workers?”
He said all of this without notes as camera lights beamed into O’Malley’s pale eyes. This was O’Malley’s first trip to a primary state since his Annapolis years ended. More importantly, the trip was coming after two weeks of brutal news for Hillary Clinton, who in the most recent poll of a potential New Hampshire Democratic primary led O’Malley by 69 points. She was at 69 percent; he was at 0 percent. The press corps, in person and absent, wanted to see if O’Malley would whack Hillary or if he’d stumble.
He did not stumble. He delivered a sort of blow-off, a defense of the immigration bill’s principles, but phrased so softly that Pewitt didn’t seem to process it. “I actually think that when you have people living in the shadows of our society, people living off the books and not being fully recognized citizens, that you create a couple of things that are bad for wages,” said O’Malley. “You create an underground economy. It’s bad for our security–you create an underground society. And that’s bad for our country. One cannot point to an extended period of time in American history when newly arriving groups of immigrants did anything but make our country stronger.”
Pewitt walked away polite but unsatisfied. O’Malley had demonstrated, with extreme subtlety, how he will challenge Clinton for the nomination. He would not swing at her over the scandals that compelled the media at any given moment. He would not (or could not) steal away her voters with soaring rhetoric.
No: O’Malley would meet as many Democrats as possible and remind them of how progressive he was. His Maryland, for example, led the nation in finding shelter for child migrants. His Maryland allowed non-citizens to obtain driver’s licenses. After learning that, the Democrats could ponder: Where was Hillary on those issues? And when they’d puzzled that question, they could ask about banks.
“When it comes to reform of Wall Street, I think we would make a mistake as a party if we held ourselves out as becoming some version of Dodd-Frank Light,” O’Malley told reporters after the Concord event. “I think we need to reinstate Glass-Steagall. I think we need to ask some very serious questions about the sort of stock buybacks that corporations are involved in today.”
He did not need to explain how Glass-Steagall, the New Deal era reform that put a wall between commercial banking and investment banking, was repealed. It was repealed by Republican-written legislation signed by President Bill Clinton.
O’Malley, who told reporters in Concord that he’d make a presidential decision “by spring,” is getting ready to run as the sober, credible anti-Hillary. That message is designed for both varieties of New Hampshire Democrats that are not already on board for a Clinton restoration. The first group consists of progressive dreamers who, for now, are trying to draft Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race. The second: Granite State pols who think their state is owed a real primary.
The latter group is numerous and noisy, and easily misunderstood. O’Malley spent Friday and part of Saturday talking to Democratic legislators and city officials, all of whom wanted a primary–but few of whom were worried about Hillary Clinton’s electability. State Senator David Watters commemorated a meeting with O’Malley by tweeting a photo under the legend “Run, Martin, run!” He confirmed that the subject of Clinton’s private e-mail account from her State Department run came up, but made clear that O’Malley did not discuss it.
“You know,” said Watters, “I’m awfully happy sometimes I’m in New Hampshire and not in the tempest in the teapot of Washington politics.”
Instead, said Watters, O’Malley talked about his tenure in Maryland and the Democrats’ need to sell themselves to the middle class. “He said that he thinks he really admires candidates who speak directly,” said Watters, “and he referenced Senator Warren as someone who had spoken clearly about these issues.”
Warren, who has done nothing to run for president and plenty to discourage draft movements, has a following in the Granite State. At the moment, it’s larger and more perceptible than O’Malley’s. On Friday afternoon, while O’Malley was talking to legislators, the small office of the Run Warren Run campaign was quietly working through phone calls. Three full-time volunteers, surrounded by Draft Warren gear and political maps of the state, were ringing up Democrats at their homes, encouraging them to join the cause – or at least to stop a Democratic lurch toward supporting Clinton.
Nobody has forgotten how state Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley waffled when Chris Mathews asked him if the party needed primary debates.
“There’s a lot of affection out there for Senator Warren, whether you’re supporting another candidate or not,” said Kurt Ehrenberg, the director of Run Warren Run in New Hampshire. “Even if they’re not willing to endorse a candidate, people are going to make sure there’s a competitive primary and someone speaking out on issues of economic justice.”
In Concord, at O’Malley’s only public appearance of the New Hampshire trip, the assembled Democrats refused to consider that Hillary Clinton’s bad weeks amounted to real scandals. Yet several suggested that the party needed a primary, and someone ready to run if the frontrunner twisted her ankle.
“I don’t necessarily care about the e-mail story,” said Beth Campbell, a longtime Democratic activist who’d been put in charge of the event’s fundraising raffle of New Hampshire products. “There’s just something…”
“Sleazy,” interjected Campbell’s husband, Doug.
“Yeah, I guess that’s the word,” said Beth Campbell. “Everything seems to be set up for her to run for president.”
The Campbells watched from a corner, with waning interest, as O’Malley circled the room. His speech, they worried, was “bland”–a collection of phrases with the average oomph of “it’s about making better choices so we can achieve better results.” Even the governor’s mid-speech loosening of his tie, and a joke about “America’s poet laureate, Bruce Springsteen” failed to heat up the room.
O’Malley’s potential as an un-Hillary became clearer as he ran the gauntlet of random questions. Pewitt left him alone after the immigration colloquy. The other voters buttonholing O’Malley ran the primary state gamut, from a college student who had written a pro-O’Malley newspaper column, to a man who wanted to talk about the origins of propaganda in World War I (“I try to learn something new every day,” said O’Malley), to a man with a curiously large number of photos for O’Malley to sign.
“That was a great day, the day we legalized gay marriage,” said O’Malley, scribbling his name on the photos. “Ah–another one from the gay marriage ceremony.”
All of this could serve O’Malley’s goal, of becoming the contrast candidate with Clinton. But it was 10 months before the primary, and he was still working out his lines in the lowest-key manner possible. When one reporter asked an open-ended question about immigration, and whether being a reformer would help his primary bid, O’Malley couldn’t decide on his angle.
“Ooh, I would hope that–I mean, look, beyond whether it makes us competitive, it’s the history of our country,” he said. “We’re made stronger by immigration and the ability of new Americans to work hard and to be innovators and business creators in the full light of American society.”
O’Malley paused. “Let me take another run at that,” he said, as cameras rolled. “I know we’ve all grown a bit cynical. We act like politicians never make a decision until they’ve taken a poll. Part of what I’d hope to offer, if I decide to do this, is a return to the politics of principle.”
There it was again: A jab at Hillary Clinton, albeit totally removed from the subject the media was itching to cover, and ending with a happy-bland statement of purpose. A couple of questions and selfies later, he was off to a dinner with more legislators, then drinks with more legislators, then sleep before a breakfast with legislators.
The next day, O'Malley flew to Kansas to speak to that state's humbled, defeated Democratic Party. When reporters grabbed him afterwards, he had settled on his answer to the e-mail question. He pivoted right to driver's licenses–"driver's licenses for not-yet-naturalized citizens so they can drive safely to and from work and get insurance." It was up to the press to figure out who might be against such a thing.
"I think these are the issues that are going to define this next race," O'Malley said. "Not e-mail policies."