Martin O'Malley's pot decriminalization lesson: What Democrats can learn for 2016

For all the focus on presidential politics, Maryland governor proves how important getting the right Legislature is

By Jim Newell
Published April 17, 2014 8:45PM (EDT)
Martin O'Malley       (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Martin O'Malley (AP/Patrick Semansky)

It won't be long, my friends, until Democratic voters gets their first opportunity since 2008 to split up and devote themselves to any number of warring presidential primary candidates, all offering effectively the same thing. It was fun in 2012, when the world got to witness a half-dozen or so Republican presidential candidates destroy each other over what were essentially hair-thin differences in otherwise ultra-right-wing policy proposals.

Less fun for Democrats to remember, though, is when the rift between Barack Obama supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters nearly broke the party in half, even though their greatest policy difference was perhaps whether to include an individual mandate in healthcare reform legislation. (When Obama eventually won the presidency, he took Clinton's position that, yes, there should be an individual mandate.) In 2016, one would expect that there won't be many grand differences between major Democratic candidates' platforms in the primaries, once again: They will all promise everything, with a shade of difference here or there.

One of the players in this spectacle will most likely be Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland. Discretion, or the ability to mask ambition, has never been one of his strong suits. And lucky for him, the Maryland state Legislature just completed its final session under O'Malley, one that produced a bundle of liberal goodies for O'Malley to tout on the campaign trail. Among these was a bill O'Malley signed into law decriminalizing small possessions of marijuana -- one of the fastest-rising issues of importance to the left nationally. The Washington Post writes about how the law gives O'Malley an advantage in his quest to out-left his potential presidential primary rivals:

Like oh so many politicians with their eyes on the White House, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has spent the last year beefing up his résumé ahead of the 2016 elections. For O'Malley, a moderate Democrat and former mayor of Baltimore, this means tacking to the left and burnishing his liberal credentials.

And his latest move is a big one. On Monday, O'Malley signed a bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

As polling has shown, decriminalization of marijuana has a lot of popular support. According to NORML, 16 other states and the District of Columbia have passed laws decriminalizing marijuana, treating carrying the drug like a traffic infraction. One of those states is Colorado, which, along with Washington, legalized marijuana earlier this year.

While other potential 2016 candidates on both sides of the aisle have voiced their support for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana (we're looking at you, Rand Paul), O'Malley is the first who has actually taken any action. This is significant because it is sure to do two things: win him pro-marijuana fans and give opponents something to seize on should he run in 2016.

By 2016, in a Democratic presidential primary, decriminalization will be a much more beneficial position to hold than to attack. We should expect O'Malley to talk constantly about his extraordinary effort to get marijuana decriminalized in Maryland.

And watching O'Malley tout his drug-war downscaling credentials will be a fascinating sight, given that only, say, a week or two ago, his most recent on-the-record position regarding drug laws was being "not much in favor" of loosening them. Here he is, at the beginning of the legislative session, prattling on about marijuana being a gateway drug and so forth. It was only when an emboldened, progressive Maryland Legislature pushed the decriminalization bill through at the last minute -- with no help from O'Malley -- that the governor decided, what the heck, I guess I'll sign it.

This isn't to knock O'Malley, who, like most effective politicians, has signed all the right bills, sometimes for opportunism's sake and sometimes out of true-believing moral grit. But the legwork has been done by a strong liberal Legislature that pushed itself, and O'Malley, into a stronger progressive posture.

Democrats should keep this lesson in mind as the temptation to focus on another sexy, all-consuming presidential primary battle comes into focus again. On the one hand, liberals should obviously avoid settling for a Joe Lieberman-esque conservative Democrat. But for the most part, the possible candidates -- O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, whoever -- will all be on nearly the same page. And whichever one of them was to become president, none of their promises will come to fruition if there isn't a progressive Congress there to fulfill them. And in the areas where a would-be president is ambiguous or hedgy on a certain progressive goal, the best way to turn them around is to have a progressive Congress send it to his or her desk and force the right choice.

One of the reasons the Obama presidency has been so frustrating is that so much of the effort in 2008 went into getting candidate-Obama to promise to do everything, without paying enough attention to the composition of Congress. No matter how many times primary voters got him to promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, it didn't change the fact that he had very few allies to help him achieve this in Congress. Candidate Obama also promised to push through the Employee Free Choice Act, but that didn't matter when Sen. Blanche Lincoln decided to blow the whole thing up.

After watching the way the Obama presidency played out, it would be a shame if Democratic primary voters go through the whole, naive cycle again: putting all of their hopes into finding the one, true, perfect presidential candidate, and then suffering disappointment when that person becomes president and obviously can't achieve anything because the congressional composition happens to suck.

This isn't to say that there's no point in having a Democratic presidential primary. The way in which the candidates try to outmaneuver each other is a fine way of ironing out a party's policy priorities. But perhaps a portion -- as in, most -- of the energy that goes into getting the right presidential candidate in place should be transferred into getting the right Congress in place.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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