Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has been one of the loudest voices calling for more debates, and it doesn't take a genius to see why—his presidential campaign has failed to find serious traction thus far, and he's consistently polling below 5 percent both nationally and in the early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa.
You could call him the "fourth option" in the Democratic race, but the truth is that he's far closer to electoral non-starters like Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb than he is to Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or the man whose campaign he most envies at the moment, Bernie Sanders. He needs the national forum that debates provide in order to jump-start his campaign, and the Democratic National Committee's stranglehold hurts him more than any other candidate.
O'Malley spoke to me on the phone late last week from his home base in Baltimore, following a trek through Iowa and Colorado. He began the conversation with a charm offensive, complimenting my name and asking if my parents were inspired by Shane MacGowan, lead singer of the Irish punk band the Pogues and one of O'Malley's "poet heroes." (They weren't.)
We touched on debates, Hillary Clinton's style, the unpredictable rise of Sanders, and the issues that will bring his name to a larger audience. O'Malley speaks in long, almost elliptical sentences, with occasional allusions to Shakespeare or Thoreau, and even in casual conversation seems to imbue his speech with a sense of drama—a high rhetorical style that anyone who watched his DNC speech will remember.
The first thing I want to ask you is another debate question, because the latest thing I saw is that Hillary Clinton is vaguely saying she would want more debates, but not necessarily pressing the DNC for any action.
She's a specialist at vaguely saying things.
I did want to get your thoughts on whether that's genuine or if it's a dodge.
I think it's party malpractice for us to allow these Republican debates to go on without us answering. Their false portrayal of these last eight years of President Obama's record, and their hate-filled rhetoric—oftentimes racist—directed at immigrants, and their utterly failed economic policies, which they seem to want to double down on...we owe the American people more than this as a party.
We've come a long way since the Bush recession and the Wall Street crash of 2007 and '08, but we have work to do, and our party needs to shake ourselves off of the couch, resist the instinct to circle the wagons around this year's inevitable front-runner, and instead present our ideas to the American people. It's not their fault that they're tuning in by the millions to watch the Republican debates—that's what they're supposed to do as citizens. It's our fault that when they tune in, they're not able to find any channel where they hear about the Democratic candidates and their ideas.
Instead, what they hear are questions about emails and servers and very little of the main issue around the kitchen table of Americans, which is, "How can we get our economy to work again for all of us?"...making college more affordable, making wages go up rather than down. These are the things we need to talk about, and if we do, whoever our nominee is, we can win the general.
But if we cower in the shadows, if we cynically put the one New Hampshire debate on the Saturday before Christmas, so as few people will watch it as possible, then shame on us. We are better than this as a party, and we need to start acting consistently with the legacy of Kennedy and Roosevelt and other great leaders who have stood up in tough times, and stop cowering in the shadows and hiding from debates. So that's what I have to say about that, Shane.
I think to state the obvious, in order for a candidate like you to paint a contrast with Hillary Clinton, debates are far and away the best opportunity.
Yes. We had had nine debates by this time eight years ago, and perhaps the fact that Secretary Clinton was the front-runner eight years ago has led them to conclude with the DNC chair that they're best served by having as few debates as possible. I think all of it should be what serves our country, rather than what serves our individual campaigns. As a challenger, sure, I'd like a million debates, but as a citizen and as a Democrat, I'm really outraged at the undemocratic way that the Democratic Party is behaving, and I think we're letting our country down by not offering the ideas that serve our nation's interest and the people of our country.
The last question I'll ask you about the debate—the one aspect that's foggy to me is to what extent the DNC worked with the Clinton campaign when they were actually setting the dates and coming up with the exclusivity clause. Do you know anything about that, or is that in the murky fog of history at this point?
No, I don't know anything about that, but when there's fish in the milk, I think all thinking people have a responsibility to ask how it got there.
Did you say "a fish in the milk"?
Yeah, when there's a fish in the milk. I don't know where I got that from. (Laughter in background from his staff.) Look up "a fish in the milk." I think it's...the guy who wrote Walden Pond.
Thoreau. We'll have our research team get it.
It's a trout. A trout in the milk. If there's a trout in the milk, all of us have a responsibility to ask how it got there. That's exclusive to you, Shane.
Fantastic. We've seen Bernie Sanders hammer on the topic of wealth inequality, and making some gains in the polls, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. For your campaign, what's the idea that's going to do that for you, and short of the exposure that debates bring, how will that happen?
Ultimately what we're electing is a president and a chief executive, and chief executives have to get things done. So yes, we can talk about this issue of the growing injustice and growing inequality in our country. Notwithstanding the fact that our country's doing better and we've created jobs now for 66 months in a row, the hard truth of our times is that 70 percent of us are earning the same or less than we were 12 years ago. And that's not how our economy or our country is supposed to work. That's not the American dream. So people are angry, people are frustrated, and people are particularly angry at the established leaders of both parties who they rightly perceive have gone along with either trickle-down economics or trickle-down lite. These are the economics that benefit a few megabanks on Wall Street and threaten to leave the rest of us behind.
So I think you see people expressing that in this summer of anger and discontent by gravitating to those candidates that most affirmatively repudiate the establishment of both parties. But once we start having debates, and as decision time approaches—I'm already seeing this happening in Iowa on the ground as our crowds grow and more people sign up and commit to caucus for me...we had 12 county chairs endorse us there last week—people are going to be focused on choosing an executive, someone who can get things done.
So as the debate shifts, that's how people will be making their decision. So, stated another way, it's fine to rail against the injustice, it's another thing to actually take the actions that will address it, and to forge a new consensus to get things done. That's what I've done through 15 years of executive service, and I'm the only candidate in our party who can say that.
When you talk about executive experience, and how it will trump the enthusiasm that Sanders is generating, what then are the chief differences between you and Hillary Clinton if she becomes your primary opponent?
Well, let me say a few things. The main difference with everyone else in our party is that I actually have 15 years of executive experience achieving progressive things, not just talking about them, not just professing to believe in them, but actually getting them done. We're the first state in the union to pass a living wage, increase the minimum wage, and make college more affordable by freezing tuition four years in a row even in the middle of a recession.
We made Maryland's public schools No. 1, which has never happened before, but we brought people together to forge a new consensus, make greater investments in public education, and made our schools No. 1. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hardly ever says nice things about any Democratic governor, made our state No. 1 in innovation and entrepreneurship three years in a row. So it's about getting things done, and one of the clear contrasts I have with our party's inevitable front-runner this year is that I actually have the independence and the ability to follow through on some things we haven't done very well as a party.
What are they? No. 1, reining in the excesses of Wall Street, which even Paul Volcker says have made our economy as vulnerable to excess as it was eight years ago. And the second thing is, I have the ability and the freshness of approach to be able to say that these trade deals that we have been pursuing, NAFTA and now the TPP, aren't good for our economy, and they're not good for American workers, and we should stop doing them. The independence, the follow-through of a promise we made to rein in Wall Street, and the independent judgment to stop stumbling backward into these bad trade deals, are a few things that distinguish me from Secretary Clinton.
Not to mention a third, which is that I don't wait for public consensus to form before I act. I believe that leadership is about forging a new consensus. When you look at my policies on immigration reform, the statements I've made about our own refugee challenges when the Central American kids came looking for asylum, or if you look at the current crisis in Syria, I step up and lead with American principles. I don't put my finger to the wind and wait for consensus to form. And that's the sort of leadership I think our country's looking for.
Would you have extended the Bush tax cuts as Obama did?
Not for all of those for whom he extended them. I think we have, I think that's one of the biggest problems that we face as a nation, in addition to having kicked wage policies to the curb. Part of trickle-down economics which—they rarely ever had the guts to articulate it—but part of their policy was to keep wages low. Undermine unions, don't raise the minimum wage, don't pay overtime pay for overtime work, all in the name of corporate profits, and genuflect when you say corporate profits. And as a result, corporations are facing an America where there's very little economic demand because workers aren't earning more.
But the other piece of this is that by concentrating wealth at the top and manipulating the tax code, piling on tax cut after tax cut for the benefit of the wealthiest 1-2 percent of America, we sold the country short. We stopped making the investment in our nation, in our nation's economy, our nation's infrastructure, in the skills of our people. That's required in a modern information-based economy, and we're paying the price for it in the growing inequality and injustice. So the president had to face the decision he had to face, and made the trade-off. For my part, I believe that we need to have the courage to ask the very very wealthiest among us—who have never been as wealthy as they are today—to be willing to do more for their country.
Would an O'Malley Justice Department be more vigorous in prosecuting Wall Street on an individual and potentially jailing executives who are undertaking criminal or near-criminal actions?
Yes, we definitely would, and you can tell that from the policy that I rolled out a few weeks ago on Wall Street reform. If people rob banks and the only repercussion is a slap on the wrist, then they're going to continue to rob banks, and the same thing is true of people in suits who violate the law. So we need a robust prosecutorial deterrent to this sort of reckless behavior that occurred in the past on Wall Street, and that we're still vulnerable to today. We've created this condition, and by looking the other way at the misbehavior, we've created the conditions here.
We've almost all been conned into believing that these megabanks are too big to fail, too big to jail, and too big to manage, apparently. It's not too much for the American public to expect their federal government to protect the Main Street economy from excesses and criminal behavior on Wall Street. And I intend to follow through on the promise we made as a party to the people eight years ago, that we would rein in that sort of reckless behavior so we'd never have that sort of crash again. I believe we should reinstate Glass-Steagall, but part of it is also creating much more robust prosecutorial deterrents to misbehavior.
Thanks a lot of for your time.
Use the trout quote, man. I can't wait to see the trout quote.