Thursday, May 03, 2012

Barney Frank Sees Reasons to Hope

Barney, the prickly one, not the plush one, behaved quite acceptably today. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank either is a morning person or WBGH talker Callie Crossley soothed him with her calm voice and ready smile. At 8 a.m. at Suffolk U's Ford Hall Forum, he made definitive statements but neither bullied nor shouted down anyone.

The central topic was dysfunctional government. As far as he's concerned, it's real and he doesn't like it.

I brought my trusty digital recorder, but no extra battery. I have nothing to post for clips as my silvery buddy stopped almost immediately. However, WGBH and iTunes will eventually carry the show for free.

The gist of his thesis is that the Congress he joined over 30 years ago would have fundamental disputes across party and ideological divides, but would compromise in the end to deliver what the nation needed. Now the Republicans no longer do that and simply refuse to pass legislation that is not 100% to their liking.

Our national memory might suggest that this has long been thus. However, he said it became unworkable only in 2010.

Pic note: That's Creative Commons. If you want to use or alter it, feel free after an initial credit to Mike Ball.

He traced the roots to then Rep./Speaker Newt Gingrich's strategy to earn the GOP a permanent majority in Congress. This included refusing to compromise, even when it would cripple governance. Over the past 15 or so years, that attitude began to permeate both houses, bringing the dysfunction Frank decries following the 2010 midi-term elections.

In some of the few lighter moments in his hour and a half on stage with Crossley, he brought up his two bumper sticker ideas for Democrats. The first might have been for the 2010 election — THINGS WOULD HAVE SUCKED WORSE WITHOUT US! Another that would have worked then but be even more meaningful for this fall's campaign was WE'RE NOT PERFECT BUT THEY'RE NUTS!

To open the morning, Crossley lobbed him a question about his political aims. He said that was easy, to make the world less unfair. He feels he's done a decent job, with some failings.

The unfair aspect will surely be pivotal to the race for the Presidency. He spoke of parallel systems of public sector and private sector. While avowing to be a great believer in capitalism, he said that inequality is inherent in the world of commerce, as individuals and companies jostle to get ahead and make money. He said that it is government's chief job to set policies that modulate the inequality to try to keep it within the socially useful range.

Yet in the past few years, he says he has seen a dysfunctional democracy where that policy making should work but has not. Too many in Congress, mostly Republicans, are embittered by disagreements and instead of compromising seek to follow Gingrich's guideline of denying the legitimacy of the other side.

Amusingly enough, he uses Barney logic on the many voters who have such a low opinion of Congress. First he said that "nobody who fails to vote in primaries has any right to complain to me." His message for those unhappy with the Senators and Reps need to ask themselves, "What were you thinking when you elected all these people?"

For someone with his dour, sour reputation, Frank returned to optimistic notes repeatedly though. He believes the Tea Party victories two year ago were likely an anomaly brought on with dissatisfaction with the recession. He figures there's a good chance a majority of voters will want to change back from the extreme positions of the right this time.

For Pres. Obama, Frank hopes some lessons are learned. For one, "His people made a mistake" in the mid-term by pushing predictions. For example, they said that if Congress passed the requested relief program, unemployment would dip below 8%. When it turned not to get quite that low, the prediction gave many voters a sense not of the reality of improvement, rather the failure to reach the artificial target.

Much of his conversation was on money and taxes. He called for a better tax system, tax minimums, and building job skills for those without them. He also thought we still had a 1940s to 1960s defense spending mindset. "We should not still be protecting war-torn France from Joseph Stalin (or paying to forestall) all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union." We can use our tax money better.

He said much more (including admitting a couple of times he was "too sanguine (and) missed the housing market" bubble. When the file is live, I'll post a link here. It was an insightful, fun session.

For this blog however, I have to note that he is engaged to his long-term partner. He joined the recent chorus I've been hearing of those who are amazed at how quickly LGBT rights are moving and public support growing. He thinks GLAD's attorney Mary Bonauto is brilliant in her attack on DOMA in federal court. Specifically, she is arguing for equal protection and not same-sex marriage as a fundamental right.

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