Could the next President of the United States be an NUI Galway honorary graduate?

By Dr Larry Donnelly

Every four years, many Irish eyes turn their gaze to the fascinating, lengthy and complex process by which the American people decide who will be their next president. The extent of the interest in American politics in Ireland is among the things that have most amazed me since relocating here from Boston in 2001 to take up a post in the School of Law at NUI Galway. Offering my analysis of developments as they unfold to media outlets has also kept me very busy over the years.

Students, graduates and staff of the University have a unique stake in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in that two recipients of honorary degrees from NUI Galway – former Secretary of State, US Senator and First Lady, Hillary Clinton, and former Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor, Martin O’Malley – are seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton received hers in 1999 and Martin O’Malley was awarded his in 2008.

Martin O’Malley receiving his honorary doctorate in 2008 at NUI Galway

Their Irish connections are myriad and significant. Hillary Clinton aided in the peace process in Northern Ireland as First Lady, has been a prominent supporter of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform in its advocacy for the undocumented Irish and is a regular visitor to this island. Martin O’Malley, whose ancestors hailed from Maam in County Galway, actually wrote the position paper on Northern Ireland for then-presidential candidate Gary Hart when he was just 20, travels to the west of Ireland frequently and, through his traditional music band, O’Malley’s March, has struck up a close friendship with Leo Moran and the other members of Tuam’s Saw Doctors.

To date, the presidential campaign in which they are participants has been shaped by the populist sentiment which is clearly on the rise in the US and is evidenced by the surprising levels of support for the billionaire businessman, Donald Trump, on the Republican side and for the selfproclaimed socialist US Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, among Democrats.

Polls of the American people reveal that the levels of confidence about the future are at a historical nadir. That vast, amorphous and almost indefinable entity called “middle America” is unhappy with the realities that manufacturing jobs are now scarce, that wars in the Middle East have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and catastrophic mental and physical injuries and that the skyrocketing cost of third level education is putting attainment of further qualifications out of reach for many.

Without doubt, Mr. Trump has been the big story of the campaign thus far. He has appealed adroitly to voters’ fear and anger. Some of these voters don’t disagree with the unsavoury comments he has made about Hispanics, women and other groups or individuals. And even if they do disagree, they appreciate his “calling it as he sees it” – something that they don’t believe most politicians ever do. After every “Trump shocker,” a chorus of pundits has opined that he would be finished. Yet his standing in the polls has either stayed the same or actually improved.

That said, the campaign remains in an early stage. Mr. Trump’s name recognition and the fact that he draws viewers and sells newspapers have been crucial to his popularity in 2015. When voters really tune in over the coming weeks and months and as more of the numerous Republican contenders fade away, it is likely that one or more alternatives will emerge as realistic potential nominees.

Most of the early speculation centred on the former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush. But he hasn’t caught fire in the polls or received the overwhelming support of his party’s establishment, as most political watchers had predicted. What’s more, Republican voters very badly want to recapture the White House and understand that the Bush surname would be a real liability against the Democratic nominee in light of his brother’s failed presidency. Although Jeb Bush may still win, there are several credible challengers who, if they do well in the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) and raise enough money, could pull off an upset. Ohio Governor John Kasich and US Senator Marco Rubio are among the candidates to watch.

As for the Democrats, there is near universal agreement that it will be extremely difficult for anyone to overcome the tremendous advantages Hillary Clinton has. She has raised an enormous amount of money and racked up endorsements from elected officials and activists throughout the country. Despite this, there is some dissatisfaction with her and also a sense of “Clinton fatigue” in the party. Senator Bernie Sanders has capitalised on both and some polls have actually shown him leading Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire. Nonetheless, it is virtually impossible to conceive of any scenario in which the Democrats would select Senator Sanders to be their candidate for president, given his hard left ideology and rather kooky persona.

Hillary Clinton pictured during the honorary degree ceremony at NUI Galway in 1999

At the same time, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has been overly cautious and stage managed and has made a serious blunder in dealing with scrutiny of her email account from her tenure as Secretary of State. Her dominant performance in the first major debate, however, put to rest a lot of the doubts about her. The subsequent decision of Vice President Joe Biden not to run leaves her a relatively clear path to the Democratic nomination.

The polls indicate that Martin O’Malley hasn’t garnered any traction yet. Those who have watched him for a long time caution against underestimating him and point to the strong relationship he enjoys with the African-American community and his capacity to draw the votes of ethnic Catholics. But his 2016 candidacy seems more likely a “dry run” in advance of a future campaign for the presidency.

Alternatively, some observers have posited that Mr. O’Malley is actually running for the vice presidency – hoping that a decent primary campaign, together with heightened name recognition and the aforementioned electoral strengths, will render him an attractive choice as the running mate of the Democratic nominee, probably Mrs. Clinton. Those of us on campus in Galway, and NUI Galway alumni throughout Ireland and around the world, will continue to watch our two honorary graduates with keen interest and no small amount of pride as American voters make up their minds.

Larry Donnelly is Lecturer and Director of Clinical Legal Education in the School of Law, NUI Galway. He is also a regular media commentator on American and Irish politics, current affairs and law.