For those of us political observers who like our politics served with a side of humor and our legislators to be of above-average intelligence, former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank is sorely missed.
In his 32 years in Congress (1981-2013), Frank was – to borrow Lincoln’s phrase – a “beau ideal of a statesman” for political junkies. He was always ready with a quip and quick with a retort. In debate, whether in committee or on the House floor, Frank would slice up the opposition’s argument with a surgeon’s precision and then, when the moment was right, drop the scalpel and deploy a one-liner with the brutal force of a machete’s chop. Frank often elevated debate yet never failed to bring levity. Qualities that are tragically absent from today’s politics.
And in spite of all the crass derision directed his way by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, Frank remained one of congressional Republicans’ favorite Democrats. Conservative activists could never understand what those who were the last of a breed – Republicans who actually pursued governing – did: Barney Frank is a pragmatist.
No one ever confused Frank for a centrist. He was proudly cut from the same mid-20th century liberal cloth as his fellow Bay Staters Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy. Like them, he could make a deal. And he knew when to say yes.
Progressives would do well to follow Frank’s example.
Contrary to what many of their Twitter followers desired, congressional progressives were never going to get $3.5 trillion in new spending. It was always a pipe dream. Always.
America doesn’t do big change. Our Madisonian system is designed to frustrate it. We don’t operate with a Westminster parliamentary system. So, without massive congressional majorities or an opposition party you can negotiate with in good faith, change only occurs in small steps.
As of this writing, President Biden has unveiled a framework for $1.75 trillion in social spending that would establish universal Pre-Kindergarten for more than six million children; limit child care costs for most working families; expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for another year; provide for the largest expansion of federal Pell grants in a generation; expand Affordable Care Act tax credits; and offer targeted investments in affordable housing, elder care, clean energy, and to combat climate change.
By any measure, most of these provisions on their own would rightfully be hailed as sweeping. The fact Democrats are closing in on putting all these elements together into one package is nothing short of revolutionary.
And, yet, progressives are expressing all the outward enthusiasm for the legislation as someone about to undergo a root canal.
They focus their ire on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. But political observers and Washington insiders all know Manchin often says publicly what other Democratic senators admit privately. Progressives can loathe Manchin all they want but, without him, Mitch McConnel would be Senate majority leader and none of this would be possible.
So, progressives have to both deal with Joe Manchin and accept the world as it is, rather than what they would like it to be.
Which brings me back to Barney Frank, who often introduced himself, to great howls of laughter, as “America’s only left-handed, gay, Jewish congressman.” The line drove home Frank’s larger point that he understood what it is like to be an outsider.
In many ways, progressives are outsiders in American politics. Save for brief periods in the 1910s, 1930s, and 1960s, America has always been a center-right nation. Frank’s own life shows the remarkable transformation that, within the last 30 years, has seen Americans simultaneously become more culturally tolerant and even more deeply suspicious of government.
Frank embraces the progress toward cultural acceptance but also accepts the skepticism of government with clear eyes, telling CNBC in 2019:
There are people who are skeptical of government. People like me who do want to expand the role of government in some areas need to understand that we need to show how that works. You do it in pieces. And then you show that it worked, you build on that.
Congressional Democrats are closing in on building something remarkable that gives them room to build upon. The fact they’re doing it all in a post-policy era makes it an even greater achievement.
The fact that they have also flunked ‘Politics 101’ by thoroughly botching the optics, losing the message war, and delaying passage of what was once a popular bipartisan infrastructure package is also completely on brand.
By their (in)actions over the last several weeks, congressional Democrats, but especially progressives, have confirmed the late humorist Will Rogers’ legendary observation: “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
Rogers and Frank would no doubt have gotten along splendidly.