July 22, 2003
Congressman Barney Frank
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Okay, BuzzFlash takes it shots now and then at Democrats who wimp out in the first round. But we do have our Democratic heroes, junkyard dogs who aren't afraid of kicking up some dust in a scrap with the Republicans.
After all, there are Democrats like 71-year-old California Congressman Pete Stark, who apparently got so angry at the dictatorial ways of the House Republicans that the GOP members of the Ways and Means Committee feared he might tear off the gold cuff links that lobbyists had given them. That's why the Republicans claim that the Capitol police were called on July 18th. After all, Stark called one of the Republicans a "fruitcake," and they don't take kindly to insults, thin skinned as they are. (See LINK)
If Barney Frank (D-4th, Massachusetts) had been in the room with Pete Stark, the two of them could have taken on a room full of the Stepford GOP DeLay squad and left mincemeat behind. Barney's a street fighter who knows that you can't let the Republicans walk all over you.
So, BuzzFlash was glad to have the opportunity to interview Barney in his D.C. Congressional office a short time ago.
Barney even told BuzzFlash off a little. Hey, we can take it. Just don't rip off our cuff links. Please!
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BUZZFLASH: Congressman, the Republicans, and particularly the Bush administration, seem to be defining the terms of the political debate. What can the Democrats do to start putting the Republicans on the defensive?
CONGRESSMAN BARNEY FRANK: Well, weíre doing what we can. The president always has that advantage in American politics. You will always, or almost always, hear complaints about the opposition party not being as visible.
No Democrat can fly to an aircraft carrier. No Democrat can command the press the way Bush can. Itís been exacerbated by, in my judgment, deterioration in the mediaís willingness to cover things up, probably because of corporatization of the media. The news hole has also shrunk. They donít do as much news. They are more worried about ratings.
It was always the case that media outlets had to make money, but there used to be a lot of media outlets that made enough money so they could be REAL media outlets. Now I think you see a reversal, where almost every media outlet is trying to maximize the money. It means less news. It means more about murders and scandals, and less about the REAL issues facing Americans.
In particular, the Republicans have this advantage, and itís an unusual one in American politics. They control all of the elements of the government. And that plays into my point about the media. The media has gotten very lazy and timid. They donít want to take on the burden of deciding on the merits whatís important and what isnít -- nearly as much as they should -- so they tend to give a great deal of coverage to official events. If the Democrats hadnít lost the Senate narrowly last time, there would be a lot more coverage, because Democrats would, through their control of the Senate, be having hearings on things. But in the absence of that, the press doesn't pay much attention.
Democrats have been very vigorous and united in opposition to the Bush tax cuts, not so much in 2001 as I would have liked, but virtually unanimously and quite vigorously in 2003. The Democrats have been tough on the environmental mistakes of the Bush administration. Thereís increasing Democratic concern about the deceptions that the Bush people perpetrated with regard to the reasons for going to war in Iraq. And they get inside-page coverage on the big papers, and no coverage at all on the others. There are very smart people here trying very hard to maximize our impact, but itís very hard to break through a media thatís somewhat indifferent.
BUZZFLASH: Do you think that the Republicans are better at marketing, to the extent that Bush is considered by many of his consultants as a brand product, and theyíre selling a brand product? And Democrats tend to concentrate on the issues?
FRANK: Not entirely. Bill Clinton was pretty good. I mean, I think it is a mistake to compare a president to the opposition. A presidentís always going to have an advantage over the opposition. I think Clinton was pretty good at marketing himself. Sometimes it seemed to me that he didnít talk as much about some of the issues that I wanted.
I think itís primarily what I said before: Itís an institutional thing. When you donít have control of any of the committees of Congress, people say: Well, why donít the Democrats have hearings on this and that? Well, we cannot. Democrats try, but they cannot do that over the Republicansí objection. They are in control of the instruments of government. And you have a media thatís unfortunately unwilling to make their own decisions; namely to say, well, if this is important enough, weíre going to cover this press conference.
Iíll give you examples. Several Democratic members of the Committee on Homeland Security had a press conference to denounce how badly the Department is functioning, a point that was even conceded by some Republican hearing. It didnít get the coverage.
A group of us had a press conference to talk about the Inspector Generalís report, sharply critical of what John Ashcroft had been doing to immigrants. Nobody came. So I donít know what to do. Obviously if we did, weíd do it.
BUZZFLASH: The President seems to be playing a game of bait and switch. He is selling the country on one thing, but passing legislation that is the opposite of what he says
FRANK: Oh, no question about it. Thereís no question heís doing that. In fact, I used that very phrase in an article I just wrote.
They would like the issue to be national security, where they have a great advantage. Partly itís historical, although not justified, but itís there. Partly itís because he happened to be the one in power in September 11th. Any president in power on September 11th would have done Ė- well, Iíd do what he did. But he was the one who got to do it. And heís using that as cover for a series of very right-wing domestic issues Ė- thereís no question about it. And on the deficit, specifically, itís bait and switch. Theyíre now poo-pooing the deficit. But once they finish cutting taxes, they will then use the deficit as an argument against programmatic spending.
BUZZFLASH: BuzzFlash readers are activists and theyíre extremely frustrated. Youíre saying the Congressional leadership -Ė at least in the House -Ė doesnít seem to get heard when they try to point out that Bush is pulling the wool over peopleís eyes. What can the average citizen do?
FRANK: One, keep trying. Not spend all your time whining and complaining and being frustrated at your friends, but make the fight. Try to do something to change things. Do it. Write letters to the editor. Call talk shows. More importantly, those people who live in Republican districts -Ė and hereís one of the very important factors Ė- one of the things that makes all this possible is the total collapse of moderate Republicans. There used to be moderate Republicans. There used to be people like Jacob Javits and some others. There are virtually none now. Thereís Lincoln Chafee in the Senate and thereís Jim Leach, and occasionally Christopher Shays in the House, and thatís it. By which I mean, those are the only ones who are really prepared to stand up to the Republican leadership on important issues.
And what happens is, they posture, many of the other so-called moderates, well, they tell their constituents that they donít agree with the right wingers who run the Republican Party. But they try very ineffectively, and, in fact, go with the leadership whenever their votes are needed. Part of what needs to be done is to have people who live in the district of these so-called moderate Republicans hold them accountable for their votes. They vote for procedures which make it possible for the right wing to win. Thatís a very important piece of it.
Secondly, what people can do is speak out, register to vote, and organize. I mean, there are no tricks to this business. Thereís no magic. There are no shortcuts. It means pounding away, and pounding away, and pounding away.
BUZZFLASH: But how do people begin to chip away at what has become the conventional wisdom -Ė that Bushís friendliness, his likeability factor, is just too difficult to keep him from being reelected?
FRANK: Well, you do it by not whining about it all the time, which frankly you are doing. I mean, the thing is to fight with your enemies, not your friends. Not to say, oh, I donít hear enough of the Democrats. I mean, you do it by doing it. As I said, thereís no magic button. Thereís nobody whoís going to come forward and say: ďPresto! Hereís how you do it.Ē You do it.
Iím going to give you one specific example that people can do. A lot of people who are members, are readers, probably belong to organizations to fight cancer, to fight heart disease, et cetera. Well, these groups all come in to see me and say we need more money for research on this and that and the other. But then I say to them: Well, whereís your resolution against the tax cuts? Oh, thatís not our issue, theyíll respond. Yeah, it is your issue. Help us connect the dots. I mean, thatís one of the things that we need to do is to help literally connect to people the program cuts that theyíre complaining about and the tax cuts that are driving those program cuts.
So you speak about that, and you talk about that. And as I said, if youíre a member of some association thatís interested in something that gets hit by the tax cut, how about getting some resolutions passed? If youíre a doctor or a lawyer, there are all kinds of organizations you belong to that can do this. And thatís how you build up the opposition.
BUZZFLASH: Thereís a lot of debate that goes on about where the country is politically, and what polls say and so forth on certain issues. And certainly thereís been a disparity in the polls between the Presidentís popularity and where the country is on Medicare and Social Security and the economy. They tend to side more with the Democrats.
BUZZFLASH: Yet they give the President a high approval rating. Is there a Democratic vision that is an alternative vision to the way Bush is defining the country now?
FRANK: Well, of course there is, and itís being articulated on a regular basis here in Congress. As I said, the Democratic opposition to the Bush tax cuts this year has been very vigorous, overwhelmingly united, and quite explicit. We had an alternative in terms of what to do about the economy. The Democrats, instead of tax cuts for wealthy people staggered over years to come, talked primarily about some short-term stimulus, which would have been some tax cuts for the low-income people who will spend it, but even more aid to the states. These initiatives are coming forth regularly. And there are also obviously differences on the environment, differences on some of the other issues. But on the economy, we have continuously objected to their degradation of the public sector, and have tried to resist their tax cutting.
BUZZFLASH: The Bush administration has kept the Democrats defined as quote-unquote liberals. Do you think thatís a good word? A bad word? Is it a confusing word?
FRANK: Oh, I think liberal is a very good word. I do think it has taken on some unfortunate connotations, so I wouldnít get into a major fight over semantics. I describe myself as a liberal. I think, in fact, the public takes, as youíve indicated, very many liberal positions. But liberal has become something of a bad word -Ė not a bad word, but I guess itís a word which, for some people, has negative connotations. It really goes back to the sixties, seventies, and the implication is that liberals are soft on crime and donít think itís better to work than to get a check for free. And those are inaccurate, but Iíd rather fight the political issue than the semantic one, so I donít insist that people stick with the word.
BUZZFLASH: Weíre coming up on 2004. Thereís a primary battle going on among nine Democrats. Do you think thatís a good thing that there are so many? Or do you think itíd be better if there were fewer?
FRANK: I think it would better if there were fewer. I think it would be better if I could eat more and not gain weight. I think it would be better if I was as energetic at 63 as I was at 40. So what? So what are you worrying about? Youíve got to stop focusing on our complaints. I wish it were different, but it isnít different. It is what it is. Letís get out there and try and work with it. I mean, whatís the point of asking whether we would be better off if there were only four candidates? Do you plan to kidnap five of them and send them to an alien space station? Letís function where we are.
Now we ought to say to people: Look, we have a good range of candidates. Any one of them would be infinitely better than George Bush, so letís stick together. Now obviously there are some unrealistic candidates, and I donít think Al Sharpton is very constructive. One area where we should be talking more Ė- and we tried, but the press sticks it in the financial pages -Ė is tax fairness, tax evasion. Al Sharptonís own record of tax evasion makes him an unlikely advocate for that. But I think we ought to be very clear that weíll have a good clean fight, and whoever is the nominee will get the overwhelming support of everybody else. And I think thatís important.
BUZZFLASH: How radical do you think the Bush administration is?
FRANK: Oh, itís by far the most right wing since Calvin Coolidge. I mean that quite literally. Heís clearly to the right of Ronald Reagan. I think even Herbert Hoover, in the context of his time, was more of an interventionist than Bush. The people who are at the political center of the Bush operation really would undo the New Deal and take us back to Calvin Coolidge.
BUZZFLASH: Grover Norquist said he wants the Bush administration to starve the government. And he said, I think, kick it into a pond.
FRANK: Yeah, a bathtub. And he also said heíd like to see a couple states go bankrupt.
Thereís no question that these are people who have, I think, no real appreciation of the essential role of the public sector in creating a civilized society and maintaining one. And if we could get the public to focus on that, I think we would win. By the way, when you talk about how wonderful the Bush people are, and great marketers, none of this would be the case if it werenít for September 11th. I donít believe any of this would. George Bush, after all, got a minority of the popular votes, and would not have won a fair count to the presidency. And he was not overly popular on September 10th after his first eight or nine months in office. What heís been able to do is use the national horror at the mass murders of September 11th very effectively. But itís not his inherent genius.
BUZZFLASH: Well, weíre all opposed to terrorism. It doesnít take a lot to be opposed to terrorism.
FRANK: Right. Theyíve been very skillful at making it look as if they were more than other people. And thatís a great advantage for the President. But I think it starts to run out now. I think theyíve peaked. That is, they had their September 11th. They had Afghanistan. They had Iraq, which I opposed, but it was popular. But thatís over now. I donít believe they can have another war. And they have the negatives now in Iraq. Increasingly, people are writing to me saying: How come my kidís still over there? Why are they in such terrible conditions? The budget crunch comes home to them now. The programmatic cuts are going to be coming there. I think theyíve done all the easy stuff, and from now on, I think they have hard stuff.
BUZZFLASH: What do you think his impact is on the middle class? Bush makes himself out as the savior of the working person, the middle class.
FRANK: Well, if he keeps it up, itíll be very negative on the middle class that way. First of all, the tax cuts go disproportionately to wealthier people and donít help middle-class people. For instance, one of the worst problems the middle class faces from the tax standpoint is the alternative minimum tax, which is increasingly impinging on middle-income people. And theyíre using up all their tax dollars to help upper-income people. Secondly, middle-class people will rely heavily on public services. And thereís going to be a deterioration in public services. Health care is already being hurt, and, of course, thatís another one thatís a problem. If youíre middle income, youíre paying for your own health care, and youíre going to get squeezed. So I think itís going to be a deterioration.
BUZZFLASH: Do you take offense when the White House and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld either say or imply that anyone who opposes the Bush administrationís war strategy is unpatriotic?
FRANK: Oh, of course. You know, these are the people who were very critical, many of them, of Bill Clintonís war efforts in the Balkans. This notion that you can never oppose a president when the shooting starts is just nonsense. And I think many of them have used it pretty inappropriately Ė- that language.
BUZZFLASH: Do you feel optimistic about 2004?
FRANK: I think itís clearly not a lost cause as some people think. Itís not an easy win. Itís a tough fight. And I think that a deterioration of public services, the negatives in Iraq, and, to some extent, Afghanistan, a weak economy Ė- even if it starts to turn up some, weíve gone through more than 60 percent of Bushís term with a very weak economy Ė I think thereís a lot for us to talk about. Itís also the case, of course, that if he does get reelected, almost certainly the Supreme Court will become about as right wing as itís been since the early Roosevelt days. Gay rights, abortion rights, affirmative action -Ė which I guess was somewhat protected recently Ė- all of those will go down the drain.
BUZZFLASH: I mean, to what degree do you think the corporate media plays a role in sustaining the false positive image of Bush as compared to the sordid reality.
FRANK: Itís just that thereís less news and theyíre more worried about ratings and maximizing their income. So, A, thereís less news. And, B, what news there is is more Laci Peterson and that kind of stuff Ė- not anything relevant to public policy. And that gives the President an advantage, because the President is always going to get coverage.
What gets squeezed out are the alternative visions to the President. I think thatís a very serious problem for us. By the way, for those who tried to argue thereís no difference between the parties, the FCC vote was a good example. That was 3 to 2 vote. The three Republican appointees are going to see two Democratic appointees. If Al Gore had been elected President, that deregulation never would have happened, he said. Nothing could be clearer.
BUZZFLASH: Let me close by just going back to this issue of image. And you mentioned Bill Clinton was also good at marketing himself, and certainly had an affable personality. Is politics now more image than issues? Or is there a way that the Democrats can utilize the media some way to get the issues to dominate over the image "branding" of Bush, as implemented by Karl Rove.
FRANK: One, do you think weíre not trying? Do you think thereís a new idea that we should try to use in the media to get our issues across? And what would that be? Iíve said several times -Ė you can disagree; people disagree with each other Ė- but I think the problem in the media is a lack of attention to these things and a lack of willingness to cover them.
I canít think of anything that would work that weíre not now trying. I hope you wouldnít think that we know of a better way to do it, but weíre deliberately not trying to do it. I donít understand this focus.
As far as issues vs. personality, thereís a bifurcation. Eighty percent or more of the public tends to vote on issues. Part of the problem is that we give all this praise to some of these "independents." Now some of the independents are genuine and thoughtful people; a lot of them are people who just arenít very thoughtful.
If you have a coherent set of views about public policy these days, unless itís a very eccentric mix, you probably are a Democrat or a Republican and you vote pretty regularly for one party or the other, especially on national issues. There are some people who go back and forth. Al Goreís numbers went up when he kissed his wife, and they went down when he made faces at George Bush in the debate. Now people who are influenced by either of those are really quite stupid, but I donít know what to do about it.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original