For over 30 years until he retired in 2013, Barney Frank was one of the most liberal members of Congress. He was also the first openly gay Congressman. Given the great strides the LGBTQ movement has achieved in the last decade, he has seen what works and what doesn’t.
Barney is the “Frank” in Dodd-Frank, the biggest financial reform and consumer protection bill since the Great Depression. Like most successful bills it was attacked from both sides; by conservatives for introducing too much regulation and by liberals by not going far enough to prevent another financial crisis. But the bill is working. According to Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, “like Obamacare, [Dodd-Frank] financial reform is working a lot better than anyone listening to the news media would imagine.”
So it surprised me when Frank recently gave an interview expressing how unimpressed he is by his former Congressional colleague Bernie Sanders. I assumed that the two of them had much in common and would be allies.
Of course, Sanders supporters immediately dismissed Frank as just another Clinton partisan. But that ignores the important points made by Frank. The first one is something I’ve complained about before – liberals put all their energy into getting Obama elected and then lost interest. Or as Frank says in the interview:
I am disappointed by the voters who say, “OK I’m just going to show you how angry I am!” And I’m particularly unimpressed with people who sat out the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014 and then are angry at Democrats because we haven’t been able to produce public policies they like. They contributed to the public policy problems and now they are blaming other people for their own failure to vote, and then it’s like, “Oh look at this terrible system,” but it was their voting behavior that brought it about.
The only thing I would add is that it isn’t just their voting behavior, they pretty much lost interest in politics at all levels until the current presidential election. And now they aim their anger at Obama and Clinton, the wrong targets.
For example, one of the main attacks against Clinton by Sanders supporters is that she has taken money from Wall Street, as payment for speeches and as campaign contributions. This is a tempest in a teapot because Sanders has also taken money from Wall Street. As Frank put it:
There was this complaint, “Oh she had contributions from Wall Street.” So did Barack Obama. So does almost every Democrat because you can’t unilaterally disarm.
Sanders has also attacked Clinton for expensive fundraising dinners, like the one with George Clooney that cost up to $353,400 per plate. But most of the money from dinners like this doesn’t go to Clinton (candidates are limited to $2,700 in donations from each individual), they go to the Democratic party to help down-ballot Democrats get elected. Sanders has raised nothing for other Dems. How would President Sanders get any of his programs implemented without more Democrats in Congress?
Though Frank is widely—and correctly—regarded as a progressive, his progressivism is tempered by a certain fundamental pragmatism, as his words make very clear. The same is true of, for example, Sherrod Brown, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and certainly helps us to understand why the Vermont Senator has struggled to get endorsements from even those members of Congress with whom he is 95% in agreement.
The main success of Sanders has been tapping into the (perhaps misplaced) anger of Democrats, the same way that Trump is tapping into the (definitely misplaced) anger of Republicans. But it takes more than anger to get things done, it takes work.
Frank says that Sanders has been an ineffective Senator:
Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of his accomplishments and that’s because of the role he stakes out. It is harder to get things done in the American political system than a lot of people realize, and what happens is they blame the people in office for the system.
I think this might be Frank’s weakest argument against Sanders. While Sanders does not have big-name bills (like Dodd-Frank) to his credit, he has been good at using the amendment process to influence other people’s bills.
A stronger argument against Sanders ironically comes from his superdelegate count. Sanders has often complained against the undemocratic nature of superdelegates, but is now trying to woo them to his side. Calling them undemocratic ignores the fact that many of the superdelegates are elected Democratic governors, senators, and representatives. It is telling that Sanders has received the endorsement of only one Senate superdelegate while Clinton has received 39 (Sanders has not been endorsed by any governor superdelegates, while Clinton has received 16). In fact, 23 of Sanders’ 32 superdelegates are DNC members, arguably the least democratic of the superdelegates.
Speaking of undemocratic, Frank does make a good point:
It’s ironic that we complain about voter suppression and shortened voting times and then we have so many caucuses. The caucuses are the least democratic political operation in America. They cater to the people who have a lot of time on their hands, and what’s interesting is Sanders is the nominee of the caucuses and Hillary is the nominee of the primaries.
Indeed, even though Sanders lost the Nevada caucuses by 5.3%, Sanders supporters weren’t above taking advantage of complicated rules at the county convention in Clark County (where Las Vegas is located) this weekend to muscle two delegates (at least) from Clinton to Sanders. Is that more democratic than superdelegates?
Gays didn’t just vote for non-homophobic politicians. And they didn’t get angry, they got to work. They worked hard to make sure that gays were given good roles in movies and TV shows to convince Americans that gays were no different than everyone else, with the same dreams and aspirations. And most importantly, they convinced even many conservatives that there was no threat from the “gay lifestyle”. They didn’t blame the system, they changed it. They changed the opinions of the American people, and that reverberated all the way up to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t a revolution, it was evolution. And it worked.