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Transcript: NPR's Full Interview With Martin O'Malley

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who is considering running for president in 2016, spoke with NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

O'Malley talked about why he feels Hillary Clinton — who would be his major competitor for the Democratic nomination if he decides to run — might have trouble connecting with young voters, Republican economic theory and why he opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, let's talk a little bit about economic policy first, because I know you've been thinking and talking about it a lot. We're at a moment, it seems to me as an outsider, where both parties are sharpening what they want to stand for economically in 2016. And I want to ask about each party in turn, starting with the Democrats. What, in your mind, is a vital question that Democrats are wrestling among themselves about on economic policy?

MARTIN O'MALLEY: Well it's the question that's on the center of our table of democracy here as a country really. It's how do we make our economy work again for all of us. We've, our country's doing better. We're creating jobs again. But we can't say that our economy's working well for all of us when Americans are earning less now than they did 12 years ago. So there's a number of things we need to do differently than we've been doing for the last 30 years. But they're not, they're not, they're not rash or untried solutions. I mean, we have to raise the minimum wage. We have to raise the threshold for overtime pay. We should make it easier, not harder, for people to join labor unions and bargain collectively. We should pass immigration reform. And these are, and we should also expand Social Security benefits. These are all of the things, and there are others that we must do to restore some consumer demand in our economy. And that's what we suffer from right now. We have concentrated wealth and capital to such a degree that the vast majority of us don't have the discretionary dollars to make our economy go and grow.

Let me dig in on one of those. You mentioned expanding social security benefits. You've said you favor that. A number of Democrats in Congress have favored measures that would increase what the average senior citizen takes home. How do you pay for that?

You pay for it through three primary ways. One is that when you actually adopt wage policies again, that allow people to earn more as they work harder, that will help with the solvency of social security.

You're saying a higher minimum wage means people earn more and so they pay more in Social Security taxes?

Correct. If we go through another 12 years where, I mean since this is payroll tax, right? I mean, Social Security, if you go through another 12 years where wages decline over the next 12 years — That's not a good prescription for the math of keeping Social Security solvent, let alone, being able to pay for expanded benefits. So wage policies that actually allow people to earn more. The second thing is to raise the cap on payroll taxes. Right now, once you reach I think $118,000, you no longer pay into Social Security. And then the third way is immigration reform, bringing the 11 million people who are right now denied a path to citizenship into the full light of our society so that they can pay into Social Security fully will also help expand and extend the solvency of Social Security.

Now the middle one of those is effectively a tax increase. People who are above $118,000, you said, would be paying more. These are people who would consider themselves probably middle class. Can you sell that politically, a tax increase on people who consider themselves middle class?

What you have to do is you wouldn't necessarily start it up at $118,000. I mean, right now, because of the alternative minimum tax and some other tax policies that were followed because of this economic trickle-down theory that we've been following, there's actually people in that band who do pay, have a larger burden than many others. But I believe in the Senate bill that was introduced yesterday, they would re, you know, pick up the payroll tax and paying into Social Security above a certain amount. And so that's what you'd have to do. You'd have to do it in a way that's progressive and fair and not in a way that's regressive.

Is it your sense that whoever the presidential nominee is for the Democrats in 2016, that this is probably going to be something that the party stands for? Republicans, you'll say, want to cut Social Security. Democrats will argue for increasing benefits.

I think it's one of the things. I think what's going on right now, Steve, is you have a competition between two theories of how our economy actually works and how we generate economic growth that lifts us all. The Republican Party is doubling down on this trickle-down theory that says thou shalt concentrate wealth at the very top of our society. Thou shalt remove regulation from wherever you find it, even on Wall Street. And thou shalt keep wages low for American workers so that we can be more competitive. We have a different theory. Our theory as Democrats and as the longer arc of our story as Americans is that we believe that a stronger middle class is actually the cause of economic growth. And that in order to make our economy grow, what is good for business is that workers earn more so that they can be part of, not only the innovation that goes on in our country, but also part of the increase consumer demand that we have to generate. What ails our economy right now is 12 years of stagnant or declining wages, and we need to fix this.

It's interesting that you bring up what Republicans are saying right now, because Republicans are in a moment of trying to adjust what they stand for and how they talk about it. You're laughing here, but...

Well, I'm laughing because it was their policies that led to this concentration of wealth and an economy that's no longer working for...

What a number of Republican candidates are talking about is economic opportunity, emphasizing finding ways that the government can actually be helpful to people on the bottom of the economic scale, people like Marco Rubio, who has declared his candidacy, Jeb Bush who may well declare. A number of others have been talking about this. What are they missing?

They're missing the actions that actually allow you to do that. I haven't heard one of them, maybe there is one, but I haven't heard one say that they're in favor of raising the minimum wage. Have you?

They're not.

Ok, well there you go. I mean, look, talk is cheap. The policies that they advance are the very policies that have led to a situation where concentrated wealth and capital have been put into the hands of the very few as never before in our country's history, at least not since the Gilded Age. And so there are two ways to go forward from here, and history shows this. One path is a sensible rebalancing that calls us back to our tried and true success story as the land of opportunity. The other is pitchforks. There's, history affords no other paths. We're either going to sensibly rebalance and do the things that allow our middle class to grow, that expands opportunities and allows workers to earn more when they're working harder. Or, we're going to go down a very, very bad path. I believe that there's still the will, the common sense and the compassion and the caring for one another in our country for a sensible rebalancing. And that's what I'm offering.

I think Republicans have talked more along the lines of education, making it easier to get an education, making it easier to get ahead if you've had a lot of experience in life, but you don't have a good formal education. Things like that.

Yeah, they talk about that sometimes, but let's look at what they really do. I mean, you look at the college debt right now that could be solved if Congress would pass a bill. I mean right now, for kids coming out of college to be paying 7 percent interest at a time when interest rates have never been lower, is outrageous. And Congress can fix that. And Republicans control both houses of Congress. So, what they say and what they do are two different things.

We spoke with Marco Rubio on the day that he announced his candidacy, a Republican of Florida. And he said an interesting thing that a number of other Republicans have said. He argues that an active government actually keeps people frozen at their economic status because if you are well off, if you can afford a lawyer, if you can deal with regulations, you can maneuver through government and stay prosperous. And if you are not so well off, it's harder to work the system. Is there some truth to that? You were a big city mayor; you know how government works.

No, I don't think there's any truth to that.

Not any truth to that?

No, I don't think there's any truth to that.

Isn't it true that corporations, large corporations for example, are able to deal with regulations in a way that small businesses might struggle with?

Oh, certainly. I mean, our tax code's been turned into Swiss cheese. And certainly the concentrated wealth and accumulated power and the systematic deregulation of Wall Street has led to this situation where the economy isn't working for most of us. All of that is true. But it is not true that regulation holds poor people down or regulation keeps middle class from advancing. That's kind of patently bulls- - -.

Let me ask about another issue. That's quite a last word, by the way, on that subject. Let me ask it, I'm just going to leave it right there. Let me ask about another issue on which Democrats seem to be divided. You have said in recent days that you oppose the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that would tie a dozen nations, including the United States into free trade. What's wrong with that?

Yeah, I do oppose it. What's wrong with it is first and foremost that we're not allowed to read it before our representatives vote on it. What's wrong with it is that right now what we should be doing are things that make our economy stronger here at home. And it's my concern that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this deal which is urged by big corporations, many of whom have off-shore jobs and many of whom have off shored their profits, is bad for America's economy because it's bad for our middle class and it is a race to the bottom, a chasing of lower wages abroad, and I believe that that does nothing to help us build a stronger economy here at home. And I am appalled by the notion that we're not allowed, as Americans to read this agreement before our so-called representative institution of Congress votes on it.

You're describing the fact that it is being negotiated privately and that Congress is approving fast track authority for it, meaning it would be an up or down vote?

That's right.

But they would be allowed to read it before the up or down vote, wouldn't they?

Oh really? Are we going to?

I'm asking the question.

Yeah, I don't think so. It's not my understanding.

Your understanding is that it is a completely secret deal even at the time that it's for an up or down vote?

Yeah, I mean, I think they're doing some briefings of some members of Congress. But the notion that all of us get to read it as Americans is not accurate. I mean, that's the purpose of fast track. I mean it's almost like the notion that they've got to pass it before somebody actually reads it and sees what's involved in it. And I'm opposed to it . I think we kid ourselves when we think that somehow by chasing, I mean look, we have the ability, let me say this another way. We have the ability right now in the world to market our commodities, to market our products, to market our services abroad. I have led trade delegations as a governor all around the world. But what this deal does with its strange tribunals that allow corporations, U.S. corporations to sue the United States to avoid regulations and protections of the environment or work standards and other things. I think is bizarre.

We should mention that you're opposing something that President Obama is negotiating and supports.

That's right.

And, of course, President Clinton also famously signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. There is a wing of the Democratic Party that has favored free trade agreements. What does your opposition say about the divide in the Democratic Party right now?

I'm not opposed to free trade if it's fair trade. But I am opposed to bad trade deals. I have supported some trade deals in the past myself. I've supported the Korean trade deal. And that one had protections for workers, protections for wages, protections for the environment and it was entered into with the people of South Korea who are our friends and are very much a stable democracy in this world that understands a stronger middle class is a universal cause. But I'm opposed to this one. And I don't believe that it's in the best interest of our country and the very fact that they're not willing to share this openly with all of us would indicate that there's something fishy here in Denmark.

The administration has described a strategic purpose to this particular trade pact. It involves Japan and other nations that are near China that feel in some way threatened by China and the United States sees an interest in knitting them together and tightening their ties to the United States. Isn't there something to be said for that?

You know, I've heard that argument as well, and I've heard also that the speaking point, rather that we need to write these trade rules, otherwise the Chinese will, which is kind of juvenile way to look at the world. I mean the Chinese are going to do what they are going to do in their best national interest. And so too, should we. And so we should enter into trade deals that actually protect workers, that actually protect our environment and that allow us to trade with like-minded people in larger markets around the world. We shouldn't be lowering our standards simply so. We shouldn't be lowering our standards and hurting our economy in the interest of some amorphous or elusive goal. I don't believe that whether we pass this or not that this is going to affect what the Chinese do. I mean we tried to...

Might it affect the other countries that are part of this agreement?

I think we can still trade with those countries.

Is there another way that you would seek to bind those countries to the United States if you think it's important at all?

Sure, I mean we should be engaged with likeminded nations all around the world on many levels. Economic, diplomatic, cultural, joining forces in this new era of global collaboration to combat the common enemies of our humanity. And then to threaten life on this Earth, namely climate change and the transformation to renewable and more circulatory and sustainable economies the world over, including here in the United States.

Having spent some time in Iowa, are you convinced that Democrats in the early caucus and primary states want a serious contest for the nomination for president in 2016?

I am, I've, I believe that there is a growing desire for a robust debate about the issues and the questions whose answers will determine what sort of an economy we build. An economy is not money, it is people. And an economy is the sum of the policy choices that we make together. And so I believe that Democrats, not only in Iowa, not only in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but across the country, want to have a discussion and a debate about the better choices we need to make to build upon the good things that have been accomplished over these last eight years, but to move us over this threshold to a new era of American progress. And that hunger is growing, not diminishing.

If it were to be you against Hillary Clinton, what would the issue differences be that people would be deciding on in Iowa or elsewhere?

Well I think that Secretary Clinton and I bring different backgrounds and different experience to the task of getting things done. I have been a big city mayor and I have been a governor. In other words, I've been an executive and a progressive executive with a record of accomplishments. And Secretary Clinton will no doubt have her experience as a legislator and secretary of state to talk about on a number of issues. I think contrasts will become apparent. She's only recently gotten into the race. I have not yet reached my decision. I will by the end of May. And I think that in addition to the experience difference, I think you just have a perspective difference. I see, having spoken to younger people, people under 40, where our country's headed. And it is not the sort of siloed and bureaucratic and ideological world of many of us baby boomers and our older siblings. It is a more connected world and it is a more collaborative and open and transparent world. That's the way I've always governed and that's the way that you have to govern in order to get things done today. I believe that differences will become apparent and over the next month, I am sure she will start to roll out her policy choices. When I get into the race, I will lay mine out.

Are you suggesting that you would do a better job in appealing to those voters under 40 that you describe?

I think certainly the conversations seem to carry themselves whenever I'm on college campuses. In other words, I do think that there's a connection and I do think there's a recognition that we need to change the way we govern, we need to change our government, we need to change our approach and be a lot more entrepreneurial in asking what works and being willing to show citizens in a real time fashion where their tax dollars are going and what the results of our choices on the policy level are in terms of real results on the ground.

Would Secretary Clinton not appeal successfully to younger voters, who are a big part of the Democratic coalition?

Oh, I don't know. I mean that's what a campaign's about. If we knew how all of this turned out, it wouldn't be so exciting.

Your campaign has already commented on a couple of statements that Secretary Clinton's campaign has made. Clarifying where she stands on gay marriage, and clarifying where she stands on driver's licenses for people who are in the United States without documents. What was of interest to you about what she said?

Well, I'm glad she's come around to those positions on the issue of marriage equality, which we passed in Maryland. I'm glad she's come around to the issue of drivers licenses for new American immigrants so that they can obey the rules of the road. This was something we did also in Maryland. So I'm glad she's come around to those positions.

What do you mean, come around though?

I mean that she wasn't in favor of those things before.

Wasn't in favor of gay marriage years ago, you mean?

I'm saying that marriage is a human right and I'm saying that there were many in, there were some including Secretary Clinton who said until very recently that marriage equality was a state right. And I'm saying that while we passed the drivers license bill for immigrants, this is a new position for her to be in favor of it. And you know that as well.

Well, I was thinking about exactly what she had said, though. She had said previously that this was a matter for states to decide. She had said she was in favor of gay marriage. And what is new is simply an expression by her campaign, a hope that the Supreme Court in an upcoming case would rule in favor of marriage equality across the country, which doesn't actually seem like that big a difference. What makes that important to talk about?

Well, actually you asked me about it.


So you must think there's something important about it.

You commented on it, though.

Right, and I was asked about it last night. Look, I think the bigger issue, Steve, is this. The bigger issue is do we have the ability as a party to lead by our principles or are we going to conduct polls every time we try to determine where the middle is on any given day? I have had a history as a leader of doing things that very often times are unpopular, considered in a singular way, but collectively have made my state a better and stronger place, have contributed to a common good, have put into law and into action the belief we share in the dignity of every individual. I believe that we govern best as a party and we campaign best as a party when we campaign and we govern from our principles rather than from polls.

What are you saying there about Secretary Clinton?

I'm saying that we govern best as a party and we campaign best as candidates when we campaign and govern from our principles.

I grant you're in an intricate situation here, but I feel that you're suggesting something about Secretary Clinton without quite wanting to be able to say what you mean.

Now look, I think this is the way it's supposed to work. I think any of us who feel we have the executive experience, the framework for the future, and ideas that will help our country move forward out of these rather divided times in order to put the national interest first, should do so. And I am in the final months of my consideration as to whether to offer my candidacy for presidency of the United States. And I think we should all have respect for those who have made that offering. And in this contest of ideas, the people will decide which leaders are in their best interest.

You've been described as a friend of the Clintons, a longtime friend of the Clintons. Is that right?

I like them both.

Have you talked with them in recent months at all?

I spoke to Secretary Clinton when she came through campaigning for our lieutenant governor.

Which was in 2014?

Yes, right, November or October.

Is it awkward at all to contemplate running against Hillary Clinton, running against the Clintons in effect?

Well, there were many people in this, in the contest for the Democratic nomination. I think what would be more awkward is if no one were willing to compete for the Democratic party's nomination for president. That would be an extreme poverty indeed. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Clintons and I'm sure that there were many people running in the last election. I mean, I think of the friendship between Joe Biden and Chris Dodd who competed for the party's nomination and ended that race good friends just as they began that race. And so I think that all of us would be well served, understanding the need to draw contrasts and differences. I think all of us are going to be best served by robust debate about the issues that affect our common good as Americans.

Would she win if she's nominated?

Both of those decisions, the nomination and the ultimate election are up to the people of the United States. I think she would be a far better president than any of the candidates I've so far seen emerge in the Republican Party.

Can you sketch out for us, granting that you haven't declared, granting that it's early, suppose you get into the race. How do you win the nomination? How do you get to the top?

History is full of years, election years, where there was an inevitable front runner and that inevitable front runner remained inevitable right up until the first contest when all of us saw that that front runner was no longer inevitable. And usually, there is a candidate that emerges out of those early contests that many of us have never ever heard of before. But the good thing about our process is that in Iowa and New Hampshire, for all of the huge sums of money and superPACs and independent expenditures and everything else that tries to affect election outcomes, the good news about our presidential process is that in those early states, the voters get an opportunity to meet each of the candidates, sometimes two or three times. So they see each of the candidates on their good days and on their bad days. And they take their franchise and their vote very personally and feel the weight of the responsibility that comes from being an early-deciding state in this process. So if you're willing to go out there with the ideas, go from town square to town square and to every village, people will fairly consider the merits of your candidacy and your ideas.

Looking at it from a layman, should I think that for you it's all about Iowa, because that's where you have the most personal contact with voters, the smallest voter group that can have a big difference and if you were to win Iowa, or do well in Iowa, it would be a new race.

It's hard to say. I think there's always a kind of classic, tactical debate that goes on among presidential campaigns whether they should campaign the most in Iowa or the most in New Hampshire or the most in South Carolina. I think in these early states, I think you have to be able to forward a campaign that allows you to reach voters in all of those early states, because you never really know. There will be dynamics. There will be issues that come up and events that happen. And so I think that the best thing for anyone running for president in our party is to compete in all of those earliest states. And then there's a different dynamic once it gets narrowed down to one or two candidates.

One other vital question, governor, I can't let you go without asking this. If you were to run, if you were to be elected president of the United States, would you while president continue to play music in bars?

I probably wouldn't be able to play music in bars. But I hope I never stop playing music. I've enjoyed playing music. I started playing in a band back when I was in high school. As governor we kind of peeled back. I was only able to play a couple of times a year. As mayor I was a lot more current because you could be anywhere in your city for even a black tie benefit, gala ...

There's an excuse!

And still make downbeat by 10pm. That was harder to do statewide, so I doubt I'll be playing in bars, but I hope to be able to continue to play as long as I live.

Governor O'Malley, thanks very much.

Thank you, Steve.

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