On April 10, Elizabeth Warren joined Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and declared, “Powerful corporations [and] rich people have figured out that if you can bend the government to help you just a little bit, it’s a tremendous payoff, and if you can bend it to help you just a little bit more and a little bit more, the playing field just gets more and more tilted, and the rich and the powerful just do better and better.” A week later, Martin O’Malley stood before a packed crowd at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and proclaimed, “Concentrated wealth has accumulated concentrated political power in the halls of our Congress, and also in many, many, many of our state houses, making it harder than ever to get things done.”
Both of these quotes are emblematic of a nascent populist movement in the Democratic Party. Both reflect a deep concern that all Americans don’t have an equal shot at prosperity. Both demonstrate a growing opposition to the centrist Democratic policies of the Clinton era—the trade policies and the welfare reform—that seemed to mostly benefit the wealthiest Americans.
Yet it is Martin O’Malley, not Elizabeth Warren, who has a proven record of accomplishing real progress on these issues on a state level. It is Martin O’Malley, not Elizabeth Warren, who became the first major Democratic politician to endorse a national $15 minimum wage at the Institute of Politics on Thursday. And it is Martin O’Malley, not Elizabeth Warren, who is seriously considering challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
So why have political pundits come to the consensus that Elizabeth Warren is the only one who could give Hillary a run for her money in the Democratic primary? Perhaps it is O’Malley’s lack of name recognition. He is currently polling at around 0.3 percent in the Iowa Democratic Caucus, compared to Clinton’s 58 percent, and Warren’s 17 percent. But that number is increasing, and O’Malley received a warm reception in recent trips to New Hampshire and Iowa.
Perhaps it is because O’Malley is not a woman. While a first female president would certainly be a symbolic victory for women, it is unclear that a Clinton presidency would produce many tangible benefits for women. In fact, in terms of policy, O’Malley seems to have proposed just as many, if not more, policies to help women as Clinton has. At Harvard’s Institute of Politics, O’Malley declared, “We must recognize that policies that are good for women and families, like paid leave and safe and affordable child care, are also good for our national economy and for economic growth, because when women succeed, our American economy also succeeds.”
O’Malley also proclaimed his support for a federal $15 minimum wage, which would give a much-needed raise to the 3 million Americans who work at or below minimum wage, 62 percent of whom are women. Clinton has voiced her support for fast-food workers striking for a higher wage, but she has yet to establish how much of an increase in the minimum wage she would support. Despite his gender, O’Malley could be the candidate that would make the biggest difference for women.
O’Malley’s possible candidacy seems to already be pushing Clinton towards the left. She recently declared her support for a Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to gay marriage nationwide, which she previously thought should be dealt with on a “state by state” basis, and she switched her position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. O’Malley chided Clinton for these flip-flops, telling the HPR at a press conference, “I’m glad Secretary Clinton has come around to the right position on these issues … I believe that we are best as a party when we lead according to our principles and not according to the polls.”
Yet Clinton’s campaign has challenged the notion that she is a newcomer to the populist themes her candidacy is centered around. Close friends and advisers insist that she has championed populist causes long before Elizabeth Warren or Martin O’Malley ascended to the national stage. Even so, there is no denying her many ties to Wall Street, which make it hard for statements like “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top” to feel genuine.
Clinton will be nowhere near as “inevitable” in the general presidential election as she was in the Democratic primary, assuming—perhaps prematurely—that she wins it. She will have to face voters on the left concerned with her ties to Wall Street and her flip-flopping on gay marriage and immigration, as well as voters on the right who will have been inundated with anti-Hillary attacks for months. Perhaps America is ready for a genuinely populist Martin O’Malley campaign. O’Malley certainly appears to be ready.
Image Source: Flickr / Chesapeake Bay Program