Irish American Maryland governor Martin O'Malley

Here in Ireland, we have had some very high profile visitors from the US recently.  President Obama was in Belfast, where he gave a compelling speech on the future of Northern Ireland, and in Co. Fermanagh, for a meeting of the G8 nations.  His wife, Michelle, and daughters, Sasha and Malia, spent nearly a full day and night in Dublin and also visited Glendalough, Co. Wicklow and Dalkey, Co. Dublin.

Additionally, a number of the Kennedy clan – including President Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, and former US Congressman Patrick Kennedy – visited New Ross, Co. Wexford and other places in Ireland to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK’s seminal visit to Ireland, just a few months before he was assassinated.

These visits attracted a tremendous amount of media attention and were celebrated by the vast majority of Irish people.  Conversely, Clare Daly, a far left wing TD (member of Irish parliament), made some incendiary and disparaging comments about President Obama, his wife and the Irish political leaders who welcomed them for which An Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny rightly branded her a “disgrace.”  And some cynical commentators ridiculed the adulation still evident fifty years later in many quarters in this country for America’s first Irish Catholic president.

Another prominent visitor from across the Atlantic whose presence didn’t attract near as much attention was the Irish American Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley.  Doubtless because he’s not yet a household name here and also because he comes so often, O’Malley’s sojourn in Ireland was relatively under the radar.  A talented Irish musician, he has spoken often of his close affinity with this country and loves it dearly.  While here on this occasion, he gave an address in Dublin on the US-Ireland relationship and had a series of meetings.  He also spent time in the west, where his ancestors come from, with his Irish cousins and with friends – as I know from a mutual friend who was delighted to text me that he was in the company of a possible future American president in Galway.

For some time now, Martin O’Malley’s name has been mooted as a viable contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, provided Hillary Clinton decides against seeking the presidency.  It’s widely believed that O’Malley, who campaigned enthusiastically for Mrs. Clinton in 2008, won’t run if she does.  The Maryland governor ticks a lot of boxes.

He was a city councillor in and later mayor of Baltimore, a major American city that is predominantly African American.  He is in his second term as the governor of the state of Maryland.  As mayor, he is credited with a substantial reduction in violent crime.  As governor, he has signed legislation to legalise same-sex marriage and to repeal capital punishment.  He has championed the interests of undocumented immigrants and of persons with disabilities.  Martin O’Malley has a strong progressive track record, but he’s also an urban ethnic Catholic, a still important constituency that the Democratic Party has struggled to hold onto in recent years.  His abilities to transcend what used to be dividing lines and to win elections while doing so are manifest. 

It would seem no wonder, then, that O’Malley is being taken very seriously by many expert observers already thinking about the 2016 campaign.  But not everyone agrees.  Writing in The New Republic, journalist Alec MacGillis maintains that Martin O’Malley would be a “lousy presidential candidate.”

While acknowledging O’Malley’s credentials, principles and successes, MacGillis claims that the governor is lacking in dynamism, ho-hum, tedious and technocratic.  MacGillis asserts that O’Malley would be “better suited to a prominent role in a Clinton administration, one in which he could carry a large binder and work the numbers without having to generate the ideas that go with them.”  He’s not alone in voicing this criticism in the US.  And indeed, a friend here in Ireland, whose political judgment I respect, expressed similar thoughts on hearing O’Malley in an RTÉ (Ireland’s national broadcaster) radio interview during the recent visit.

Here’s why they’re wrong about Martin O’Malley as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.  The current president, as even his most vociferous enemies would admit, is overflowing with dynamism, and anything but ho-hum, tedious and technocratic.  President Obama was propelled by the dynamism he exudes to overwhelm the extraordinary financial and other advantages Hillary Clinton enjoyed in 2008 to win the hearts and minds of Democratic primary voters.  He was especially popular with voters on the left, who play a very big part in the nominating process.  They went for Obama, notwithstanding the fact that he had virtually no track record of any kind to point to as an elected official.

It is these voters who are now most disillusioned with President Obama’s performance in office to date.  He hasn’t delivered on the issues most important to them.  Many repeat the refrain that the presidency hasn’t lived up to the promise of the candidacy.

And this is why, even if one accepts that O’Malley is as devoid of charisma as his critics say (and I don’t accept he is at all), he would be a very strong contender in 2016.  Everything that candidate Obama lacked, candidate O’Malley would have in spades.  He has legislative and executive experience at different levels of government.  And he has clear wins he can point to on the matters that most animate the left.  As such, those, like Alec MacGillis, who think he’d be a “lousy” candidate, are wrong.  Martin O’Malley has delivered.  And that’s what I believe Democrats will be looking for in 2016: someone who can deliver.

For those of us who are Irish Americans and Democrats, it’s hard not to get excited about Martin O’Malley.  President Kennedy, mainly owing to who he was, and President Clinton, mainly owing to his work on the peace process, will always have a special place in Irish hearts.  Yet this country would know no greater friend in the White House than Martin O’Malley.

Hillary, please make up your mind soon.