Barney Frank’s new book, which he promoted Thursday night before a packed auditorium at the University of Minnesota, is titled “Frank,” which is not only his last name but one of the author’s leading characteristics. Frank (the person not the book) retired from Congress in 2013 after 16 terms in the U.S. House representing a suburban Boston district. The presentation was funny and frank (small “f”) with no overarching point, so I’ll just pick out some of the high points.
Frank, the first sitting member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay, said that prejudice against gays is “on its last legs,” as evidenced by the disasters recently inflicted on politicians in Indiana and Arkansas who tried to play the anti-gay card in the recent brouhaha over so-called religious freedom protection bills.
Those recent cases reminded Frank of the old analysis point that the only way Republicans, with their royalist economic policies, could be competitive with the national electorate was by appealing to social issues — God, guns and gays, as the saying goes. In fact, he said, among white men, the only subgroups among which Democrats win a majority of the vote are gays and Jews. But Frank rejects that old “three Gs” analysis point (except on the guns part, he said) and offered an unexpected analysis.
White working-class males have been losing ground economically since the end of the post-World War II boom. This is at least partly result of the domination of the government — and especially the Republican Party — by the wealthy. But, Frank believes, this white, male, blue-collar population blames the Democrats for the decline in their fortunes because Democrats are seen as the “party of government,” and those workers blame the party of government for not figuring out some way to help end their long slide from prosperity.
If you think the government isn’t helping you, it makes a certain rough sense to blame the “party of government” for your troubles, Frank suggested. But in reality, the Dems have seldom really controlled all branches of the government in recent decades. Frank believes that these blue-collar males blame the Democrats for a great many sins committed by the Republicans. For example, he said, there is a lot of (understandable) blue-collar anger over the big bailouts to Wall Street firms during the crash of 2007-08, and polls suggest that this anger is pointed at Democrats when in fact, Frank said, all of the big bailouts were proposed and initiated by President George W. Bush and his administration.
Cutting government spending
Frank closed his opening remarks with two big ideas for cutting government spending. He believes it would be easy to cut $100 billion a year from military spending without hurting the national defense at all, since much of that spending is left over from World War II and Cold War thinking when the threats (Hitler and the Soviet Union) were completely different from today’s chief threat (terrorism).
“I wish you could fight terrorists with nuclear submarines,” Frank said, “because we have a lot of them and they have none of them.” The military spends billions on programs that have little relevance to today’s threats, he said.
His second big idea for government savings would be to stop spending billions every year to catch, prosecute and incarcerate people for using recreational drugs. Drug use is bad for you but is in no way a threat to the public commensurate with the government money spent combatting it, he said.
After his opening remarks, Frank took questions from U of M political scientist Larry Jacobs and from the audience. A few of those highlights:
Frank was the chief House author of the eponymous Dodd-Frank law that dealt with the aftermath of the 2007-8 crash. Jacobs gave him an opportunity to respond to various criticisms of the law, an argument that will go on for a long time. But for Frank, the key to understanding the cause of the crisis was the practice that swept through Wall Street of bundling and securitizing home mortgages, which enabled banks to issue mortgages without having to care much about whether the mortgagees could afford the loan (since the issuing bank would unload the loan soon after it was issued).
Frank responded to critics who say his reform law was too soft on the banks. He said the law had specific provisions that would end the “too big to fail” system and would put out of business firms that engaged in future reckless conduct. He ended with a complicated, humorous shot at Sarah Palin for this criticism that managed to bring the Affordable Care Act into the discussion as well.
He said: “Sarah Palin was half right when she said we have death panels. We did have death panels — not for old people but for banks. But for Sarah Palin to be half right is better than her average.”
Death of compromise
Frank referred several times during the evening to the demise of the two parties ability to compromise to get things done and linked it to the change in the TV news environment that enables people on the left and especially on the right to watch news that reinforces all their existing beliefs and gives them the impression that the whole world (except for a few crazy radicals on the other side) agrees with them.
If you think everyone agrees with you, Frank said, you can’t understand why you should have to compromise.
Jacobs asked him about some liberals who criticize him for being too willing to compromise with Republicans. His own attitude, Frank said, is that “being an adult means you have to recognize that you share the world with a whole lot of other people” and you can’t get exactly what you want all the time.
Frank said his approach to compromise is captured by an old Henny Youngman joke. Youngman said that when people asked him “how’s your wife?” he would reply: “Compared to what?” In judging a potential compromise, he said, the key question is not is it perfect but is it better than the status quo.
Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren
Frank supports Hillary Clinton for president. Jacobs asked about those who think Clinton is too moderate, too cozy with Wall Street — especially compared to the liberal firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Frank replied with a rhetorical question: “On what issues do they differ?” He said Clinton’s position on pretty much every domestic issue is acceptably liberal and pretty much the same as Warren’s.
Stakes of 2016
“The health care bill, climate change, financial reform, whether or not there’s any reversal of the Supreme Court decision that puts money all over the system, abortion, will all be decided by the 2016 elections, presidential and other. This is a very consequential time,” Frank said.