Martin O'Malley misses his chance: How Hillary Clinton closed off his biggest 2016 opening

Martin O'Malley had a chance to trip up Hillary on immigration, but she seized the initiative while he dithered

By Simon Maloy
Published June 1, 2015 2:33PM (EDT)
Martin O'Malley       (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Martin O'Malley (AP/Patrick Semansky)

After months and months of hemming, hawing, and dithering, Martin O’Malley is finally an official candidate for the presidency. He’s entered the race with literally nowhere to go but up – his RealClearPolitics national polling average is, as of this writing, a clinically dead 0.8 percent. That puts him at the very bottom of the Democratic primary barrel. He’s being badly outpolled by Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, neither of whom have taken any steps towards 2016 bids, and he’s even behind bored vanity candidates Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb. It’s a weird position for an accomplished two-term governor of a reliably blue state to find himself in.

So what hope does O’Malley have of snatching the nomination away from runaway favorite Hillary Clinton? At the moment, not much, but he’s at least going to try and make things interesting. Both O’Malley and Clinton’s current chief rival, Bernie Sanders, have indicated that they’re going to come at Hillary from the left and appeal to the slice of the Democratic base that is maybe a little uneasy over her perceived centrist tendencies. Unfortunately for O’Malley, Clinton has already moved to cut him off at the knees on one issue he clearly hopes to challenger her on: immigration.

Remember last summer’s border crisis? Thousands and thousands of undocumented immigrant children were pouring over the southern border, straining the resources of immigration agencies and causing a major political controversy. The crisis had the weird effect of dividing Democrats on immigration, an issue that typically unites the party in the face of Republican fractiousness. At the time, the White House moved to accelerate deportation proceedings for the undocumented minors to send a message to Central American countries that there was no benefit in making the dangerous journey through Mexico.

O’Malley, who was still governor of Maryland, very publicly broke with President Obama and condemned the White House for pursuing a cruel and immoral policy. “It is contrary to everything we stand for as a people to try to summarily send children back to death,” he said, “in a place where drug gangs are the greatest threat to stability, rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere.” It was smart politics for O’Malley, as he simultaneously galvanized liberals on a contentious issue, put daylight between himself and a president whose popularity wasn’t so hot at the time, and directly challenged Hillary Clinton, who had said the undocumented minors “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are.”

Picking a fight with Clinton on immigration made sense. She’d stumbled badly on the issue in 2007 when she refused to directly answer whether or not she’d back driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. That experience, combined with her support for Obama’s policy towards the border crisis, seemed to indicate that there’d be at least some space to attack her from the left on the issue. As for O’Malley’s own record, he could point to legislation he signed allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses and his support for a state-level version of the DREAM Act.

But O’Malley waited too long, and while he sat on the sidelines, Clinton seized the initiative. Last month she laid out her own vision for immigration reform that preserves and expands upon the policies Obama has put in place through executive action. She spoke to the urgency liberals and Latino voters feel about passing immigration reform, and aggressively challenged the Republican presidential candidates, attacking them for not “clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship.” At the very least, O’Malley could have used the issue to be perceived as the person who was forcing Hillary to the left. Instead, she went there on her own.

O’Malley still has a strong record on immigration issues, and he’s hired Obama’s former director of Hispanic media to help craft policy and conduct outreach. And all indications are that he’s still going to make an issue of Hillary’s response to the border crisis as part of a broader critique of her immigration stance. He’s absolutely right to do that, but Hillary’s already making moves to align herself more closely with the portion of the electorate that he’ll be targeting. There wasn’t a whole lot of room on Hillary’s left to begin with, and if this keeps up, O’Malley could soon find himself with nowhere left to go.

Simon Maloy

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