When Martin O’Malley turned up in Baltimore yesterday he received an unexpectedly cool welcome in the city he served as mayor for eight years. O’Malley built a reputation as a tough-on-crime liberal during his time as mayor before becoming Maryland’s governor. O’Malley cut short a trip to Europe to come home to Baltimore during the current crisis. But the man who has been giving every indication that he plans to run to the left of Hillary Clinton found that his exemplary record in making Baltimore safer is no longer a political asset among Democrats, even in his hometown. Instead of being praised for the gesture or given credit for his past efforts on behalf of public safety, O’Malley may now understand that the leftward tilt of his party puts any politician who backed tough police measures in jeopardy.
O’Malley once liked to think of himself as the Democrats’ Rudy Giuliani, a mayor who took on a seemingly intractable crime problem and triumphed over it leaving his city the better for it. But though the “broken windows” paradigm remains the gold standard of law enforcement, it has very much gone out of fashion in the party he hopes to lead next year. Just as Bill de Blasio’s election as mayor of New York City on a platform of police bashing marked a sea change in liberal opinion about crime, it appears O’Malley seems to be out of step with many Democrats, especially those in the city where his career started.
Though O’Malley has been trying to assume the role of the Elizabeth Warren surrogate in an otherwise dull and utterly predictable Democratic presidential race, it was the woman he’s seeking to supplant who struck the right note yesterday. Hillary Clinton’s somewhat anodyne remarks about the death of Freddie Gray in the hands of the police and the need to “reform” the system that blacks are protesting was better received than anything O’Malley said or did in Baltimore. Indeed, although Clinton merely issued those comments in passing during a New York fundraiser, O’Malley was accused of being an opportunist for showing up in Baltimore in the aftermath of a night of rioting.
Part of the problem here for O’Malley is that even after Clinton’s reputation for honesty took body blows from her email scandal and the revelations about conflicts of interest involving her family foundation, the former governor remains a marginal figure who can’t win for losing. But whatever small advantages he may have gotten from Clinton’s problems (and they are small because most Democrats have conclusively demonstrated that they couldn’t care less about the Clintons’ corrupt behavior), has been lost due to the fact that he’s on the wrong side of history on what has become a cutting edge issue for liberals.
When O’Malley first became mayor of Baltimore, most Democrats knew that in order to win back the center of American politics, they could no longer concede the crime issue to Republicans. That was the conceit of the otherwise dependably liberal O’Malley’s rise in Maryland politics. But the difference between then and now is that the Democrats seem more interested in appeasing the miniscule audience that watches MSNBC rather than appealing to the broad American center.
While most Americans agree that police misbehavior is shocking and must be punished, they remain more appalled by the spectacle of a city neighborhood in the grips of a mob that no longer fears the police. Many politicians have learned the wrong lessons from what happened in Ferguson, Missouri last summer. Rather than simply assume that a controversial case is the result of racism or out-of-control police, it makes sense to wait for a sober investigation of the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore before resuming the drumbeat of incitement against the police and the accompanying grandstanding about racism. But that isn’t stopping Democrats from sounding off about a narrative of racism. Though racism is real, it is not the answer to a broken city’s problems or the explanation for every instance of a death of a person while in police custody.
But to a political party in thrall to its left wing, that is the only possible response to riots even when they were encouraged by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s infamous comment about leaving the rioters “space to destroy.” Despite the ritual condemnation of mob violence from President Obama and others, contemporary liberals are more hostile to law-and-order measures than they are to riots. If Democrats are determined to repeat history and assume the pose of an earlier era in which they blamed crime on the lack of enough government anti-poverty programs, O’Malley may prove to be one of the big losers in the party’s war on law and order. But he won’t be the only one. If, as our John Podhoretz wrote in today’s New York Post, the party continues to encourage criminal behavior by “engaging in an unconscious moral subsidy for the criminal disorder we have been watching,” it is the Democrats who will ultimately suffer at the polls for this folly.