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On banks, O’Malley is both prosecutor and policy wonk

As a young state’s attorney in Baltimore, Martin O’Malley prosecuted a parade of drug dealers, the city’s seemingly insurmountable public enemy. As mayor and, later, governor of Maryland, he often seemed most at home when facing off against some other Goliath – a Republican governor trying to take over his city’s schools, for example, or the gun industry.

In his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, O’Malley has taken on a new enemy: Wall Street and mega-banks.

During a policy speech in Washington Thursday, O'Malley blasted the nation’s banking industry as everything short of evil . In the process, he showcased both the best and the worst of the political DNA he’s counting on to help him dethrone Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We need to restore robust deterrents to those who police Wall Street. We cannot assume that this is the one industry that’s allowed to police itself. We need to put the cops back on the street,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley named Republican majorities in Congress as co-conspirators for cutting funding for Wall Street oversight.He argued for more stringent federal monitoring of banks, and, if necessary, government action to break them up and to bring charges against executives when institutions fail.

“When there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing, we need to prosecute it,” O’Malley said.

[Martin O'Malley's posse from the days of Gary Hart]

But O'Malley the prosecutor was also at times O'Malley the policy wonk, swimming in legalese so deep that some in the audience began to check their phones.

O’Malley ticked off a list of proposals, including an end to revolving doors between positions in industry and government oversight. He said the next administration must do a better job of enforcing Dodd-Frank, including a provision that requires banks to have plans for how they would safely dissolve instead of causing a chain reaction again that would destabilize the economy.

As he first proposed in March, O’Malley called for Congress to reinstate a “modern version” of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which forced banks to separate their commercial activities and more speculative investment ones. The measure was repealed by Congress in 1999.

But asked by a reporter “what’s wrong with the old one, if anything?” O’Malley punted.

“Yeah,” O’Malley said, kicking the question to moderator Brad Miller, a former Democratic congressman. “Maybe you have an answer to that congressman? What was wrong with the old one?”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is the ranking minority member of the Senate budget committee and has emerged as Clinton's chief rival so far for the Democratic nomination,  has also made Wall Street largesse a theme, crowding the space for O'Malley to define what he would do differently. Asked about how he would distingush himself on banking from both Sanders and Clinton, O'Malley repeated a stump speech line that he is the only candidate among Democrats with executive experience.

Thursday’s event was originally scheduled for the National Press Club, but O’Malley’s campaign balked at the club's longstanding format, in which a single club-designated journalist asks follow-up questions of the candidate. The speech was held instead at the Center for National Policy, an organization whose board includes O’Malley adviser Douglas Wilson.

[O’Malley moves Wall Street speech so he can meet the press on his own terms]

An Irish songwriter prone to quoting poetry, O’Malley spent some time waxing philosophical about the campaign.

“Every election, especially every national election, is the opportunity for a deeper understanding, and understanding precedes action," he said. "I think real leadership is to forge a new consensus, not to follow or submit to the straight jacket of the way things are today.”