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The Case for an O'Malley Presidency in 2016

03/17/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

The most damning thing that you can say about former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley isn't that he was underwhelming, either as governor or as Baltimore mayor.

It's that we were merely whelmed by him.

Even today, as O'Malley prepares to become the most serious challenger to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, there's not a whole lot you can pin on O'Malley, for good or for ill. He lacks the psycho-political baggage of a Clinton candidacy, but he also doesn't own any single issue or represent any broader movement. He's a set of technocratic biceps with a penchant for data-driven policy and Celtic rock.

There's nothing wrong with any of that, though. Formidable as Clinton is, O'Malley has all the tools to wage a compelling campaign for the U.S. presidency.

Part of the skill in politics is knowing when to make a leap. After letting speculation reach fever-pitch levels that he would call a snap election in 2007, former British prime minister Gordon Brown's decision to wait until 2010 marked a turning point from which he never recovered. In the same period, foreign secretary David Miliband hesitated to challenge Brown for the Labour Party leadership. After Labour lost the May 2010 general election under Brown, Miliband struggled to gain traction and ultimately lost the leadership to his younger brother, Ed Miliband.

In the United States, the decision by the junior U.S. senator from Illinois to run for the presidency so soon after winning national office turned out to be a very smart one. Barack Obama is now in the seventh year of a generally productive and scandal-free two-term presidency.

O'Malley's record is serious and impressive.

It's true that many U.S. political commentators would give higher marks to other current and recent Democratic governors, including former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, California governor Jerry Brown or others. For a lot of reasons, either Patrick or Brown would make stronger challengers for the nomination than O'Malley. But everyone said the same thing about Bill Clinton in 1991, too, and it's probably true that New York's then-governor, Mario Cuomo, was vastly more qualified to be president than Clinton. But Cuomo didn't run, and neither are Patrick or Brown. As much as Beltway sages make the argument for a 2016 run by former U.S. vice president Al Gore, there's no real sign that Gore wants to return to presidential politics 16 years after his narrow loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

It's also hard to identify O'Malley with any real policy goals -- for now, at least -- in the way that you associate Brown with California's fiscal turnaround or Patrick with immigration reform or racial disparity, or Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren with financial reform or New York City mayor Bill de Blasio with income inequality.

That need not be a negative, though, because O'Malley will come to the 2016 race with the ability to take on board new policy ideas best suited to conditions in 2016. He can create his own signature issues. Unlike the Clintons, who have made millions over the past decade and a half at the opaque intersection of global business interests and U.S. political influence, O'Malley might even be a stronger voice on income inequality, which is certain to play an outsized role in any Democratic primary contest. While no one expects O'Malley to become a fire-throwing populist (and any attempt to do so would seem transparent and phony), O'Malley supports reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, New Deal-era legislation that separated retail and investment banking and that was repealed in 2000 in the first Clinton administration at the urging of an enthusiastic Republican Congress. Hillary Clinton is very unlikely to echo O'Malley's stand, and even plenty of Democrats believe Glass-Steagall's repeal didn't play a significant role in the 2008 financial crisis. But it's just one way O'Malley can telescope that he will take a tougher line on the financial industry with which the Clintons (and plenty of other Democrats and Republicans) have been friendly.

He's talked about good-government reforms like bipartisan redistricting commissions to reduce gerrymandering of congressional districts, and he is in favor of repealing the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that permitted political expenditures by non-profit and for-profit corporations alike.

O'Malley is also something of a tabula rasa when it comes to foreign policy because, like many past presidential candidates, he has executive experience at the local and state level and no particular record on international affairs that a U.S. senator would have. Again, that need not disqualify him in a race where one Republican presidential frontrunner, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, has already delivered a foreign policy address in February widely panned by observers -- the purpose of the speech was largely to underline that his views would be distinct from both his brother, George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and New Jersey governor Chris Christie will have similar learning curves. There's no shortage of thoughtful voices on foreign policy (on all sides of the ideological spectrum) from which O'Malley could choose to advise him.

While his lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, lost his own 2014 race to succeed O'Malley, in part over dissatisfaction with some of O'Malley's tax increases, it's no less O'Malley's fault than the election of Republican George W. Bush in 2000 was the fault of his predecessor. Both Brown and Gore could have run respectively much stronger campaigns. Critics snark that O'Malley's successor, Republican Larry Hogan, is cutting education spending and reversing environmental protection in the Chesapeake Bay, both of which are hallmarks of O'Malley's record. But that's just how policymaking works in a two-party system, and calling for even greater dead-hand control and path dependence isn't likely to improve government. If Hogan presides over an ecological calamity or a drop in Maryland's education performance, that will only strengthen the case for O'Malley.

Nevertheless, O'Malley has a strong enough record in his two terms as governor to make a more than plausible case. It was on his watch that Maryland enacted same-sex marriage, and it was in Maryland where marriage equality won its first referendum in 2012. On an issue where Democratic (and increasingly, Republican) officials have shifted views at lightning speed, O'Malley was an LGBT ally before marriage equality became so popular that it's now virtually unstoppable.

His decision to end the state's death penalty will cheer human rights advocates who believe that O'Malley could take executive action to make it harder for U.S. states to conduct executions. Despite the limits of presidential power, it is an area where O'Malley could deploy considerable effort to maximum effect. He's even the model for the character of Tommy Carcetti, the fictional Baltimore mayor on the acclaimed 2000s series The Wire, and he deserves his fair share of the credit for Baltimore's resurgence.

As governor, he introduced the StateStat program that mimics the CitiStat program he developed in Baltimore. Certainly few politicians in the United States today understand more about the power of information and, more importantly, the power of metadata and statistics to inform government decision making. Even if Baltimore and Maryland outgrow O'Malley's data systems, his attention to detail meant that Maryland's health care exchange portal shined, while the federal website's glitches made headline news for a month.

Off the top of your head, can you list three equally impressive legacies of Clinton's tenure as Arkansas governor? Or George W. Bush's tenure as Texas governor? Or even Ronald Reagan in California? O'Malley's is formidable.

Clinton is not unbeatable.

Just like any first-time presidential contender, O'Malley will stumble, and one of Clinton's most under-appreciated advantages is that she has already experienced the presidential gauntlet as a candidate. But as the recent flap over Clinton's State department emails shows, even longtime political figures -- Clinton served eight years as first lady, won two terms to the U.S. Senate from New York and ran her own 2008 presidential campaign -- can make stumbles. Worst of all, the scandal unmasked two major forces that Clinton will battle for the next two years and beyond, if she wins the presidency:

First, the brouhaha highlighted all the pathologies surrounding the Clintons -- the secrecy that borders on paranoia, the chaotic lurches and lunges, the wild-eyed, histrionic response from U.S. conservatives. Clinton is asking a lot from an electorate where the term "Clinton fatigue" came into vogue 16 years ago. Deep down, there's still the same nagging sense that shadowed Clinton in 2008 about American political oligarchy. In a country of nearly 320 million people that's more diverse than at any other moment in its history, why should the United States entrust executive power to just two political families? That Jeb Bush is now odds-on frontrunner to win the Republican nomination for 2016, unfortunately for Clinton, only accentuates that doubt. That may be fairer or unfairer, but it remains a significant impediment.

The second is Clinton's gender and age. If Bush, Walker or Christie went through the same week as Clinton just did, they would all be dealing with significant media blowback. But would so much of the commentary refer to them as "tired"? This shouldn't play a major role in the 2016 contest. Neither should Christie's weight nor the past struggles of Bush's wife. But in an era where presidential candidates are marketed like dishwasher soap (down to the font of the "H" in the pending Hillary 2016 logo), it's still a problem for her, just as anti-Mormon bias was a problem for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution summarizes the challenge for Clinton:

Women are judged far more by their looks than are men, and Hillary's are not right for the presidency. She doesn't seem composed enough, schoolmarmish enough a' la Thatcher, and frankly many men, when they see her in their mind's eye, imagine a voice saying "Look here, buster...!" Her hair is not properly ordered for the Executive Office, and I suspect many Americans want for their first female President to appear somewhat ageless. I am not suggesting any of this is fair or even an efficient form of Bayesian statistical discrimination, but it is a reality.

O'Malley is more than competent to step up in the event that Clinton falters or, though it seems implausible now, Democratic primary voters end up having second (or third?) thoughts about the idea of a Clinton restoration. That might be especially true by 2016, when Democratic and general voters alike look back at the Obama administration with less animosity and as job growth, exports and GDP growth are all expected to rise.

Kevin Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and the editor of Suffragio, which provides analysis of global electoral politics.