Talking With Martin O'Malley: Reform, or Pitchforks?

An underdog (potential) candidate makes the case for a new approach

Martin O'Malley in Redlands, California, on Tuesday night (Esri)

The geographic-information systems company Esri, which hosted the Q-and-A session I did on Tuesday night with former governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, has put the video of the discussion online. You can see it here or below.

A few viewer's / interviewer's notes:

• This was less a casual discussion, and more a formal "please explain yourself" interrogation, than it might have been—if O'Malley's record as crime-fighting mayor of Baltimore, and his emphasis on by-the-numbers reporting of police activities along with other government actions, hadn't recently come into the center of the news. That is the topic on which we start.

• I was amazed how many people emailed me to be sure I had seen David "The Wire" Simon's brutal criticism of O'Malley, in his interview with Bill Keller of The Marshall Project. I had of course seen that interview when it first came out. After talking generally about Baltimore, I asked O'Malley not about his personal friction with Simon but about Simon's charge that, under him, Baltimore police had had an incentive to cook the books in their crime reports. O'Malley is familiar with the charge, and he has an answer (starting around time 14:00) that you can hear.

• On police violence: I asked O'Malley about the seemingly nonstop stream of videos showing mainly white law enforcement officers shooting, choking to death, manhandling, or otherwise mistreating unarmed black male civilians. What was going on here? Was more of this happening? Or were we just seeing more? O'Malley's answer boiled down to: real occurrence slightly going down, visibility going way up. Which he says, despite short-term complications, is good.

• The meat of the discussion involved O'Malley's views on inequality, polarization, thwarted opportunity, and overall Second Gilded Age-ism. He was preaching to the choir, as far as my own views are concerned, but you can hear the way he develops these themes after the Baltimore discussion.

• I didn't ask him any "normal" political questions, because ... what's the point? Either Hillary Clinton will prove vulnerable, or she will not. Either the Republicans will care about nominating a candidate with general-election plausibility, or they won't. Either way, guesses on this front are like barroom predictions for next year's Super Bowl: probably wrong, and certainly non-accountable.

• Starting around 24:00, I remind O'Malley of a moment he might have forgotten but I never will. (And it reflects well on him.) It involves his against-the-grain real-world cautions on the eve of the Iraq war.

• In the final third of the conversation, I push O'Malley on the "so what?" aspect of his argument that we're in another Gilded Age. What makes him think people are ready to move past NIMBY / me-first politics? Where's the sign of a public response similar to what made the Progressive and Populist era possible? You'll hear his answer, building to his point that eras of polarization like today's lead to reform—or "to pitchforks."

• For his part O'Malley was careful to make no "normal" political points and to release no personal barbs. But he had a very interesting "new day is coming" theme, about the way younger Americans are tired of feeling divided and pessimistic, are excited about living in cities and working on the environment, and generally feel better about life than their sour Baby Boomer elders. He's in a mid-generational position to make this point—some 15 years younger than Hillary Clinton, the same age as Rand Paul, 7 or 8 years older than Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz—but he makes it skillfully. The hope of moving past old division is evergreen in American politics (remember Andrew Sullivan's "Goodbye to All That" case for Obama in the Atlantic in 2007). It's central to O'Malley's argument.

• Governors have an edge in the race for the presidency, because they've spent their careers doing things, and learning the complications of the real world. I have no idea whether Martin O'Malley has a prayer in the upcoming presidential race. But from talking with him on stage, and before and after, and reading a lot by and about him in preparation for the event, I take him seriously as a person who has done things and knows the realities of execution. He also has attracted respectful attention from the press covering his still-unannounced campaign. For instance: a piece by Matt Bai in Yahoo; by Jill Lawrence and by Ron Brownstein back in 2013 in National Journal; ongoing coverage by John Wagner in the WaPo; and by Jim Rutenberg in the NYT. Again, who knows where this will lead, but he's shown that he is a serious figure. (Update: plus this strong-edged piece, “You Have Martin O’Malley All Wrong,” today in the Daily Beast.)

• I didn't ask him about foreign policy in this session. One reason was that we ran out of time; another is that his judgment about the Iraq War told me that he had good instincts. After the event I told him that if there had been time I would have asked him about the proposed Iran-nuclear deal. He said it seemed like a positive step, which in context is another important sign of sanity.

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A contested race is a good thing for the party and the country, even if it's grinding for the actual candidates. Whatever becomes of him, Martin O'Malley is making what sounds to me like an important and valuable case.

You can see for yourself: