Polarization, policymaking, & public service: Tom Mann reviews Barney Frank’s memoir

It is not obvious that the memoir of a recently-retired, sixteen-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives is a promising candidate for a series reviewing books on government reform. Vivid narrative, compelling personal stories, passionate advocacy, and lacerating wit may make for a great read. And Barney Frank’s Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage is an enlightening and entertaining romp through a half-century of American politics and policymaking. But what can it possibly offer as a guide to fixing government during an era of polarization, dysfunction, and public disaffection?

The short answer is more than you might think. Frank’s life in politics spanned a period in which most Americans lost their faith in government’s capacity (or willingness) to improve the lot of working and middle-class citizens but also became more accepting of personal differences, particularly on matters of sexuality. These changes in public opinion were neither gradual nor without intense conflict but a reflection of powerful economic and social forces, pitched battles within and between the political parties, and growing generational differences. Their residue today defines in large part the warring political camps that hinder effective public policy and administration.

Frank himself is a bundle of seeming contradictions. An unabashed liberal adept at the give and take of party politics and the nuances of the legislative craft. A man whose gruff manner and disheveled appearance could not disguise his uproarious sense of humor. A whip-smart Harvard educated man (BA, ABD in political science, and law degree) with a stronger affinity for the little guys in Fall River and New Bedford than the Boston elites. A powerful debater whose rapier wit intimidated many an unprepared adversary who at the same time respected those with sincere opposing views, welcomed bargaining with Republicans, and defended the much-maligned Congress. A gay man closeted for decades out of fear that revealing his sexual orientation would destroy his chosen life in politics reaches the pinnacle of his career in public life—the Dodd-Frank financial reform law—while in a highly visible and by all accounts happy and rewarding same-sex marriage.

Frank played a key role in significant achievements on behalf of economic fairness and personal freedom, but he regularly resisted the emotional, ideologically-driven, non-negotiable demands of his allies in favor of painstaking efforts for bankable incremental steps. He had little use for radicals of the left or right. He took as given that a private market economy is essential to prosperity but a competent and sufficiently-resourced government must act to protect society from market failures and to provide essential public goods. He spurned the “What’s the Matter With Kansas” argument that working class whites are fooled into voting against their economic interests by Republican appeals to their religious and cultural conservatism. Instead, Frank believes the problem is that the government championed by Democrats has been unable to overcome the decades-long stagnation of wages and declining opportunities for upward economic and social mobility.

Frank’s descriptions of his own personal odyssey and his reflections on American society and politics over the past fifty years remind us of the many forces that contribute to success and failure in policy making and implementation. (It will be obvious to the reader that these summaries are my words, not his.) They also caution would-be reformers on the efficacy of tweaking institutional rules and procedures without simultaneously considering how political actors will respond to them.

  • Deep and abiding pessimism about democracy in America is unwarranted and counter-productive. Policy success—in both enactment and implementation—is possible when the context is favorable, an opportunity arises in the political system, and skilled politicians do the difficult work to identify constructive steps and build the necessary support for them. The responses to the 2008 financial crisis in the last months of the Bush Administration and the first months of the Obama presidency are a good example of how the normal barriers to action can be overcome. Building congressional capacity and defending the institutional prerogatives and responsibilities of Congress are important if only for the limited opportunities when constructive action is possible.
  • Policy change is usually incremental and follows long periods of incubation and temporary defeat, but rapid shifts in public opinion (e.g. same-sex marriage) and demands for action in the face of crisis (often from elite actors) can precipitate more ambitious responses. Whether incremental or transformational, lawmaking is an honorable task; those members of Congress who are as good as their word and practice the legislative craft skillfully should be praised, not scorned.
  • Political parties are the essential building blocks of democracy. The diverse Democratic coalition of northern liberals and southern conservatives made possible nominal party majorities in Congress but often frustrated the policy ambitions of its leaders. During the last years of the conservative coalition, Republican liberals and moderates provided the margin of victory on such issues as civil rights, the environment and immigration. As the parties became more internally homogeneous and ideologically distinct, cross-party collaboration became much more difficult. And when Democrats lost their long-term domination of Congress, the intense competition for party control of the House and Senate increased purely strategic behavior by the parties and decreased opportunities for substantive lawmaking across party lines.
  • The two parties have evolved in distinctive ways over the last decades, further complicating the challenges of governing. Representing a one-party state, Frank had his problems with Democratic radicals and left-wing theorists who came of age in the countercultural and anti-war sixties. This might come as a surprise for someone who favored gay rights and drug legalization and worked for Representative Michael Harrington, a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. Throughout the book, Frank refers to himself as a liberal, never a progressive. His differences with the “new left” had mostly to do with their tactics, insensitivity to the values and reactions of working class Democrats, and indiscriminant condemnation of military engagement overseas. Those divisions and excesses of the Democratic Party took years to overcome. By the mid-1990s the Democrats had become a relatively unified center/left party, one that supported government, civil rights and a liberal internationalism. Democrats were willing to work with President George W. Bush, both before and after 9/11, but their eventual opposition to the war in Iraq and return to the majority in Congress after the 2006 elections set up a more confrontational stance with the Republican president. Democrats were remarkably unified during President Obama’s first two years in office, as well after 2010 with the returned of divided party government.
  • Republicans became a more conservative party after 1980, as they absorbed the formerly Democratic South, and under President Reagan embraced an agenda of lower taxes and less government, social and religious fundamentalism, and a neoconservative foreign policy. Reagan provided the rhetorical leadership, initial tax and spending cuts, and a tough-minded approach to foreign policy, but proved to be quite pragmatic in the face of increasing deficits, a tougher Democratic opposition, and an opening for nuclear arms reduction agreement with a Gorbachev-led Soviet Union. President George H.W. Bush’s impressive foreign policy leadership on the successful first gulf war and the end of the Cold War did nothing to assuage the outrage of conservative activists when he broke his “no new taxes” pledge in a deficit reduction agreement with the Democrats. By the time Bush 41 left office, the tax pledge became the centerpiece of the Republican agenda and a litmus test for those running and serving in public office under its banner. Newt Gingrich led the Republican opposition in Congress on a long but ultimately successful campaign to win a majority in Congress by discrediting Congress as an institution and delegitimizing the “corrupt Democratic majority.” The partisan war against Clinton, bookended by a unanimous Republican vote against his initial budget deficit package and his impeachment by the House, was a precursor to the unified Republican opposition to Obama. Negative conservative reaction to Bush 43, especially to his compassionate conservative rhetoric, expansion of Medicare, massive spending on homeland security, and support of TARP to deal with the financial crisis led the Republicans in Congress to embrace a radical agenda and an even more confrontational stance with Obama. The Tea Party became the Republican Party. Obama was proclaimed not to be a legitimate president or real American. Government is the root of all problems the country confronts. Climate change is a hoax. Science is a playpen for liberals. Compromise is cowardice.
  • This asymmetric party polarization has turned divided party government into a graveyard for presidential proposals, especially Democrats’, and an invitation for the opposition party in Congress to damage or nullify legitimately enacted laws during the implementation process. Unified party government with large majorities in the Senate and House can still enact major legislation but the unwillingness of the opposition party to buy into the process and accept the outcome ensures substantial public opposition continuing after enactment and policy instability.
  • Spirited and biting debate between parties with substantial differences in values and policy preferences can be a strength of the political system if both parties accept the legitimacy of the other and have incentives to engage in genuine deliberation and produce a negotiated outcome. Reforms predicated on blurring differences, identifying a golden mean, restoring civility, or ignoring powerful incentives for strategic disagreement are doomed to fail.

While Frank makes none of these points as explicitly as I do here, I am confident from reading his memoir that he agrees with all of them. He brings life, passion and humor to these sober observations and demonstrates why politics and government should be and sometimes can be a noble and uplifting undertaking.