"A lot of us are disappointed and angry": Martin O’Malley sounds off to Salon

Potential presidential candidate talks Elizabeth Warren, middle class -- and why some Democrats are "victimcrats"

Published March 13, 2015 6:35PM (EDT)

  (AP/Patrick Semansky)
(AP/Patrick Semansky)

Martin O’Malley is having kind of a moment.

The former Maryland governor, who’s exploring a run for the 2016 Democratic nomination, still doesn’t break single digits in polls. He trails not only presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton but Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And yet among all of those luminaries, he’s been the most upfront about his desire to run next year. Warren says she’s not; Biden won’t rule it out but hasn’t apparently raised money or hired staff. Clinton is almost certainly running, but she’s been more coy about it than O’Malley.

Now, with the media gorging itself on its favorite dish, an alleged Clinton scandal, and even some Democrats reportedly (and almost always anonymously) anxious about Clinton’s campaign, there’s new interest in seeing that the undeclared front-runner at least faces some primary opposition. Even some Clinton supporters think it could help her get the rust out of her operation and sharpen her campaign. Of course, things could also end the way they did in 2008, though there’s no compelling young senator from Illinois waiting in the wings this time around.

But there is O’Malley, and he’s getting a turn in the spotlight now that Clinton is seeming embattled. He’s trying to make the most of it, but he’s frustrating the media by refusing to kick his rival while she’s (sorta) down. In a 15-minute “Morning Joe” interview Thursday, the crew asked him about Clinton’s email issues five times. He mostly deflected the questions – “I don't feel compelled to answer that,” he told a persistent John Heilemann -- trying to turn the conversation back to his ideas about growing the economy and narrowing income inequality.

But when asked if he’d want his secretary of state to use official government servers, he answered, “Well, sure, it would be important to me.” (It should be important: That’s now the law, though it wasn’t when Clinton was at State.) That was enough: Matt Drudge got his link, to a Politico story: “O’MALLEY STRIKES: ‘Important Secretary of State Use Government Email.’” Every single other mainstream news report, like this one from ABC, accurately said he’d refused to take the bait.

Now we’ll see whether reporters continue to look at O’Malley as a possible Clinton rival, and focus on his support for restoring Glass Steagall and abolishing the lower tax rate for capital gains, or abandon him as boring because he won’t play along with their Clinton-bashing. Still, the media aside, O’Malley will almost certainly get more attention from avid Democratic voters rattled by Clinton’s early troubles. Is he ready?

In an interview with Salon in New York Thursday, the Maryland Democrat sounded themes that could make him an attractive alternative for Warren voters if she holds to her promise not to run. He’s often described in the media as a “technocrat” who’s somewhere on the ideological spectrum between the center-left Clinton and the progressive Warren, which is kind of specious, since neither is a declared candidate and thus neither has launched a campaign.

O’Malley clearly believes income inequality and declining wages will be the defining issues of the 2016 campaign, and he’s adopted a platform that echoes a lot of Warren’s so-called 8-point plan to grow the middle class, distilled from her “Raising Wages” speech to the AFL-CIO in January.

In addition to backing the restoration of Glass Steagall and hiking the capital gains tax, he supports a higher minimum wage and overtime-pay threshold, greater collective bargaining rights, expanding Social Security and more infrastructure spending. He can still sound like a technocrat at times, telling me he doesn’t like to talk about things in terms of “left and right” but “forward and backward.”

O’Malley’s presidential hopes suffered a setback in November, when his chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, lost to Republican Larry Hogan. In early profiles touting O’Malley for 2016, his record as governor was viewed as his best asset. Now some analysts call it a disadvantage, as O’Malley’s tax hikes are seen as one reason Brown lost (an analysis the former governor strenuously refuted in our conversation.) Liberals like Slate's Alec MacGillis have mocked his "incredible shrinking legacy."

He also has some work to do when it comes to foreign policy. There is room to Clinton’s left to criticize her comparatively hawkish foreign policy – but O’Malley doesn’t seem to have decided whether he’ll occupy that space or not. He spoke against “unilateral” actions against leaders we don’t like, and talked up diplomacy and economic engagement before military action, but those are ideas Clinton, Obama and probably even Jeb Bush could agree with. The mayor turned governor is understandably less fluent in foreign than domestic policy conversation, but he’s going to need to get more comfortable with it, especially if he faces off with the former secretary of state come primary season.

But on economic policy, he’s touting ideas that are likely to appeal to the party’s progressive base – if they take a look at him. I asked O’Malley whether he ever surveys the groups allied behind “Ready for Warren,” and wonders why progressives are spending so much time trying to lure a woman into the race who has said repeatedly she’s not going to run, when there’s a decent guy who seems willing and able to take the plunge. Does he ever want to say, “Hey, guys, over here! How about “Ready for Martin?”

He laughed. “I think they respond to her clarity. It reinforces for me the desire for new leadership.”

“New leadership”: That’s as close as he comes to slamming Hillary Clinton. Our conversation, below, was lightly edited and condensed.

Let’s talk about your "Morning Joe" appearance today. I thought you raised important points – let’s restore Glass Steagall! Let’s focus on stagnating wages! – but I counted I think five questions about Hillary Clinton’s email troubles, which you parried well. There’s a broader issue, though, which predates this mess, and that’s the desire of pundits to have you “hit” her, attack her. I’m not making the case that it’s sexist, or misogynist – I think they’d want to see you attack any front-runner, if it was Joe Biden.

Well, I also have to remind people that nobody on our side is running yet. But the Republican conversation has us in a mind-set that ours has started too …

And that she’s the front-runner. But it reminds me of a similar dynamic I saw with Sen. Obama in 2007, when our friends in the media were obsessed with his need for him to “hit” Hillary Clinton, go on the attack.  There’s a desire for you to attack her -- as though as it’s a test of toughness. How do you respond to that?

I’m much more concerned about attacking our problems than attacking other people and their solutions. I think the best campaigns are campaigns of ideas and substance. When I ran for mayor, the day I announced I was at 7 percent and we only had 100 days to go. So we ran a substantive campaign of ideas and better choices and solutions for what was then our biggest problem, violent crime. When I ran for governor, I had pretty much one opponent, our incumbent Republican governor, but we ran on a notion that a stronger Maryland can do better. We had a 10-point plan that was a stark contrast to what he was offering. So we hit him, on occasion, on contrasts…

On the issues…

But it was much more about who we were fighting for, than who we were fighting against. Some of this desire for blood sport and wrestlemania by the media does a disservice to the process. It’s not really what people are interested in. As I travel around the country the primary concern that people have is that, for as many good things we’ve done for our economy, it’s not working for many of us, because wages are still going down. So we need to do the things that will address that problem.

So let’s get to those things. You were asked on “Morning Joe” today what would be the one thing you’d do, if you could only do one thing, to restore wages and reduce income inequality. You said “Reinstate Glass Steagall.” Tell me why the restoration of Glass Steagall would make such a difference on those issues.

Yeah, those “only one” questions are tough.

I know, I don’t really like them – but you were asked it, and that’s what you answered, so I have you on the record without asking it! So why Glass Steagall – how does it operate to reduce income inequality and bring wages back up again?

There’s a lot of policy choices that we made through the people we elected over the course of the last 10-20 years, that have led to the situation that there’s no longer a connection between working harder and having the opportunity to get ahead. It has shifted much of our income to a very small number of us. And it didn’t lead, as promised, to a cloudburst of job creation. What it’s led to is for the first time, since the Second World War, a decline in wages.

One of the ways that was accomplished was removing regulation of the speculative aspects of the economy and Wall Street. I think former President Clinton and even Newt Gingrich have said it was a mistake to repeal Glass Steagall. For 70 years we would not allow the banks that we insure to recklessly gamble with our money and then be forced to bail them out.

There’s a few things that happened after each of those busts. There were the job losses, there were the home losses, but there was also a greater concentration of wealth. This is not how our economy is supposed to work when it’s working for the majority of us. If a bank’s too big so that it can’t fail without hurting our economy, well then it’s too big. I think the reinstitution of Glass Steagall is something that a lot of people believe as a practical matter is something we should do, and the only reason most offer for not doing it is that politically, it would be too hard: we have monied interests tying Congress in knots.

And now a lot of Democrats are supporting Dodd Frank lite. It’s the strange politics of triangulation, where you only want to say what’s safe…

Well, it’s not just what’s “safe.” It’s done deliberately to curry favor with Wall Street. That’s one of the things that’s happened to the Democratic Party in the last 30 years, it tried to catch up with Republican fundraising, and it turned to Wall Street. For a while we’ve had both parties competing as to who would shower Wall Street with more advantages. So how do you approach that? How do you approach it with the tax code? Would you do away with the carried interest rule and other things that helped keep Mitt Romney and investment bankers and private equity guys with a tax rate that’s lower than those of us who earn a salary?

Yes. I think there’s not a real good policy justification for taxing income from interest at such lower rates than income from sweat and hard work. One of the big questions that this campaign will seek to answer is how we reward productive investment rather than stock buybacks – which, by the way, were made a lot easier in 1992.

There’s also a debate in the Democratic Party about the roots of income inequality – does it lie in a skills gap, a lack of education, or does it have more to do with political decisions we’ve made over the years that privileged financial wealth, that cut taxes, that give the wealthy more power. On “Morning Joe” today, you talked about how the economy isn’t like “the Gulf Stream,” just blowing around and out of our control – that we shape it with political decisions. That sounded to me like you were more in the latter camp, but I wanted to ask you directly

It’s the damnedest thing, people in our own party who share common values and a commitment to principle are so quick to default to this defeatist notion – to become “victimcrats” not Democrats. I saw the same thing on public safety in Baltimore, in fact we waged a campaign that said “Believe,” because if you believe you can’t, you’re probably right. And in the same way that Baltimore, in 1999, had come to disbelieve that there was anything we could do about crime, and talked about it in barometric terms, we today, as a party, we’ve fallen into a similar trap in being convinced by the other guys that there’s nothing we can do about our economy. But the economy is always a result of political choices we make as a people. For years our parents and grandparents practiced the economics of inclusion and connection. Raising the minimum wage. Raising the threshold for overtime pay. Making it easier for workers to join together to bargain collectively for better pay and better working conditions…

These are the decisions that built the American middle class in the '50s and '60s, it wasn’t just blown in by the Gulf Stream…

Right. The politics of inclusion and connection, the more highly educated every generation of workers are, the more they can participate in the entrepreneurial aspects of our economy – there are just some investments we can only make together.

President Obama often sounds these themes…

Yeah, but then he defaults to tax cuts…

Yes, but this term he’s started to talk more about investment, “we all do better when we all do better…”

Paul Wellstone.


I love that line. There’s something in the spirit of our people right now that really is yearning to remember that we’re all in this together and we need each other, and our economy does better when we all get ahead. Those are the resonant themes that span generations. We’ve come through a long detour – for 30 years, since Ronald Reagan -- of what George Bush Sr. called “voodoo economics.” The notion of trickle-down economics, concentrate wealth at the very top, wait for the cloud to burst, deregulate everything, free markets fix the world. That’s not the way we built a strong country that could give every generation a better future with more opportunity.  We need a combination of wage policies that reward hard work, and policies to rein in reckless speculation that becomes destructive or predatory. That’s what happened: The gambling with our money became reckless and the lending, on the ground, became predatory.

Recently Warren Buffett suggested that Elizabeth Warren is too angry, that she’s too divisive – do you worry that this message gets framed as anti-business, when you talk about banks as “predators”?

[Pause] Well, predatory lending was a fact.  I think that a lot of people have responded to the clarity of Sen. Warren, and her laser focus on the excesses, and the need to wake up and guard ourselves from the fact that this could happen again.  I think we need to be honest about what caused the recession, all that job loss, we have to be honest about the policy choices that have led to declining wages, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t appeal to our common interests.

We also had a lot of Democrats who were all in for a “grand bargain” that would have cut Social Security; you are one of a few that say expand it. Why?

We do that because right now we’re facing a looming retirement crisis in our country. People who used to have personal savings, or pensions, don’t have them.  More and more people are going to be relying solely on Social Security. It’s one of the things we need to do so that seniors can live in security and dignity.

So you’d want Social Security benefits to rise.

Yes. We do ourselves a disservice when some of us cave to the myth that Social Security somehow drives the deficit.

It’s become a truism that you’re somewhere between Hillary Clinton, who’s roughly at the center, center-left, and Elizabeth Warren, who’s at the progressive end of the spectrum. Do you see it that way?

I don’t really look at a left-right continuum, I look at a forward-backward continuum. There were so many things that we did to move our state forward even during the recession. Highest median income; better job creation than Virginia and Pennsylvania, No. 1 by the U.S. Chamber in innovation. But we also practiced the politics of connection and inclusion, a principled politics. We passed marriage equality, passed the DREAM Act, driver’s licenses for non-citizens, we repealed the death penalty. I did those things as an executive at the same time we made the tough decisions to allow us to give our children a future of more. So on the left-right thing, I don’t know how to answer that question too well. I believe in doing the things that work. That’s what I did as mayor, that’s what I did as governor.

Speaking of your record as governor, I’ve seen you grapple a little bit with this in other interviews: Back in 2012, 2013, people said the reason you might be a potential 2016 candidate was your solid record as governor. But with the surprising loss of Anthony Brown last November, some analysts saw a referendum on your administration, and say it will make it harder for you to run on your legacy as governor. How do you respond to people who say Brown’s loss was a referendum on tax hikes, on spending -- on you?

The last time our record was defended was 2010, when all of those revenue decisions were much fresher. We won by 14 points. This year a tactical decision was made by our party’s nominee to put his airtime in another direction. But why weren’t we able to hold Massachusetts, with Deval Patrick’s record there, with Elizabeth Warren’s election [in 2012]? Why weren’t we able to hold the president’s home state of Illinois? We failed to tell the larger story as Democrats, about the better choices that we can make as a people, such that families can see themselves being part of a better story. When we don’t tell the larger, better story, we tend not to win. Our people don’t turn out. People weren’t hearing that larger story: that we’ve made progress on healing the economy, but we’re not done. That we have to focus on raising wages. In the absence of that larger message – “we’ve done this, but we still need to do this” -- you let the other guys turn the election into a referendum on whether we’re disappointed and angry. And a lot of us are disappointed and angry.

I have to pivot to foreign policy, which may loom large in 2016, even in a primary, where you could face a former secretary of state. How do you respond to the 47 Republican senators who signed that letter to Iran warning against a deal?

I thought it was outrageous behavior; we’ve never seen anything quite like that in modern times, the undermining of our president and secretary of state when they are engaged in important delicate nuclear arms negotiations.

But what about the efforts of Sens. Menendez and Corker, trying to create a bigger role for the Senate and, some say, box in the president. That’s actually a bipartisan effort, though more Republicans support it than Democrats…

Well, I think the hopeful thing that came out of the letter is the number of Republicans who say the letter was a mistake – those who didn’t sign it, but even some who did – even John McCain said he wishes he had not, I think. I mean, Congress will play a role in these sanctions, even if a deal is concluded. But to try to scuttle the deal?  It’s the ultra-right in Iran that’s against the deal.

On the issue of ISIS, and Libya and Syria more broadly, Secretary Clinton is on the record having supported the effort to topple Gadhafi strongly, and as wanting an earlier and more aggressive response to the Syrian crisis, including arming rebels who are trying to topple President Assad. Ideas the president rejected. Where do you stand on those questions, of whether we should have taken out Gadhafi, or whether we should have done more against Assad?

I think our most effective foreign policy is a foreign policy of constant engagement around the world, and deploying our considerable diplomatic power, and our economic power, in accordance with our principles. I think we do our men and women in the military a tremendous disservice when we ignore problems until the only solution left to us is a military solution. I think we may well make the world less safe by a quick resort to toppling regimes without the more painstaking work of building economies…

So would you question the decision to intervene in Libya, or get more involved in Syria?

I don’t know. I wasn’t there at the time, and I didn’t really bone up on the nuances of that to be able to discuss it with you today. No doubt we will in the fullness of time, if I decide to do this. Let me say that over the course of the next couple of months we’ll be laying out a number of policy speeches, almost certainly on national security and foreign policy. The first role of our president is to make sure the U.S. is safe and secure in this world. But doing that involves the deployment of our full array of powers. It involves the consistent engagement of like-minded people around the world. I don’t think we should take on the unilateral responsibility of declaring when political leaders do or do not have to go in other countries. Yes, we have to stand up to evil and atrocities but we are at our best when we do that in coordination with allies in the region. And I think that’s what President Obama and John Kerry are attempting to do with ISIS. We should be there in coalition, but it would be counterproductive to make this only our fight.

When I read profiles of you, and read some of your rhetoric, it reminds me a bit of Barack Obama – wanting to transcend ideology, bring people together, make government work. But while President Obama has accomplished a great deal, most of it has been with Democrats only; he has not been able to transcend ideology, far from it. I wonder what makes you confident you can deal with the logjam you’d no doubt face in January of 2017. I don’t think you’re expecting that the magic of your personality is going to make John Boehner and Mitch McConnell come to the White House with apple pies and say, “Mr. President, let’s find common ground!” But why do you think you might succeed where President Obama, by his own admission, did not?

Every campaign is an opportunity to reset. We imagine congressional districts will be drawn as they are forever, but every 10 years they get redrawn. There’s important work to heal our democracy: bipartisan redistricting commissions, overturning Citizens United. And there’s important work we can do to make our government work again. That’s pretty essential to the trust that we have to have in each other: if you don’t believe that anything your government does can ever deliver results. Every president brings a different experience and background. President Obama had a legislative background, mine is that of an executive. I had to be on the phone constantly as mayor, with every member of the Baltimore City Council, mind you we were divided by class and race, not by party. In the state of Maryland, we were engaged with the Legislature every day, and also with Republican legislatures, having pizza nights. The only way one can be effective as an executive is to be meeting with the legislators.

What would you say about the role of race in the president’s problems?

[Pause] Oh, I don’t know. [Pause]. President Obama has done really good and admirable things to rescue our country from a second Great Depression. We’ve now had five years of month over month private sector job creation, he did the tough things necessary to save our auto manufacturing, to prevent our financial industry from going into depression. And he has, I think, demonstrated a remarkable amount of self-control and self-discipline and humility and faced with some obstructionism and some really disrespectful behavior that is hard to understand on a rational level. And I think that’s all I’m going to say about it.

By Joan Walsh