This week, the first real cracks in the liberal coalition ahead of the 2016 presidential election became apparent to all observers. While many saw the liberal schism coming, few would have predicted that a dispute over a free trade agreement would have ignited it.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama took the fight to his liberal critics who are deeply skeptical of a proposed trade deal with Asian nations and congressional Republicans’ plan to empower him to make that agreement. In an interview with liberal favorite and MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Obama singled out progressive leading lights like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for criticism.

Obama’s MSNBC interview was preemptively rebutted by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley who cut and published a video message presenting himself as the candidate in the Democratic primary race most opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The true target of O’Malley’s criticism wasn’t Obama, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And Clinton’s left flank is very much exposed on this issue:

“As secretary of state, she touted the trade pact as part of the Obama administration’s strategy to shift U.S. foreign policy attention to Asia to confront China’s growing influence,” The Washington Post reported. “By the time Clinton left the State Department in early 2013, the Obama administration was deep into negotiations on the TPP, which Clinton had referred to as ‘the gold standard in trade agreements.’”

“It’s safe to say that TPP won’t be perfect — no deal negotiated among a dozen countries ever will be — but its high standards, if implemented and enforced, should benefit American businesses and workers,” Clinton wrote in her 2014 auto-biography.

Last week, her spokesperson Nick Merrill suggested Clinton was taking a more cautious line in response to pressure from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. He said that Clinton believes it would be wise to “walk away” from a deal that doesn’t result in rising wages for American workers and fails to strengthen national security.

Ed suggested that O’Malley might actually land the first punches of this primary fight over the issue of trade. “Warren may not be a viable candidate to challenge her in the primary, but Martin O’Malley certainly would be, and he’s already calling Hillary out for her silence on this,” he noted. “If she won’t address it — or if she sticks with her previous positions on fast track and TPP — progressives may line up behind O’Malley and bail on the Clintons.”

While the dispute over the TPP simmers, O’Malley has already won the support of one prominent defector from Clinton’s camp. Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a former Clinton supporter and a donor to her 2008 presidential campaign, announced on Wednesday that he will back O’Malley in 2016 and host a fundraiser for his political action committee.

“He’s not running yet, but I’ll tell you, if he does run, I will endorse him,” Díaz told the Herald.
“He’s an old friend, and I’m very loyal to old friends.”

O’Malley’s time as mayor of Baltimore overlapped with Díaz’s service as Miami mayor between 2001-2007. Díaz told the Herald that he modeled Miami’s 311 system after Baltimore’s under O’Malley.

“When you look at what mayors do, and in this case what governor’s do — and he’s been both, so he’s actually run something,” the former Miami mayor said.

This episode might be an outlier, or it could herald a flood of defections from Clinton’s base of supportive current and former officeholders. The Clintons have kept fellow Democrats in line through the threat of sheer retribution. But if Diaz faces no political pressure, other prominent Democrats might follow his lead.

Shortly after Diaz’s announcement, New Hampshire’s Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan appeared to get cold feet when asked if she planned to endorse Clinton’s 2016 bid:

Is she truly waiting for a budget to pass before backing a horse in the presidential race? Perhaps. Or perhaps she is waiting to see how the field develops. Whatever the case, it seems the coronation has been put on hold. For now.