Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Barney Frank Had the Right Career

In the wake of Barney Frank's announced retirement, I'm seeing a lot of suggestions that are based, I think, on misunderstandings of Frank's strengths and of the various different skills needed for different roles. So: we have Tim Noah suggesting Frank for Secretary of Treasury; Andrew Sullivan said that "He should have been Speaker, and in a less homophobic world, he would have been"; and apparently someone today suggested he should be HUD Secretary, which he shot down.

I'm probably as big a fan of Frank as anyone, but I think all of this is mistaken for two reasons. First, because his skills were not a good match for those jobs...among other things, you really can't have a Treasury Secretary who is always shooting off his mouth. House leadership? Again, message discipline, rather than rhetorical cleverness, is what's called for in these jobs. Also, I really have no idea how well Frank is suited for running a bureaucracy (as he would be doing at Treasury) or at the kinds of partisan organizing that party leadership is responsible for. What Frank has demonstrated he's good at is legislating, and at speaking forcefully about liberal ideas and specific issues and programs. Those are important skills, but they're the skills of, well, a legislator, as he basically said in yesterday's announcement. As far as I know, the best Speakers of the modern era, Tip O'Neill and Nancy Pelosi, didn't particularly have those skills; for that matter, neither does the current Speaker, John Boehner, who as I've said seems to be pretty good at the job.

And as I sort of said yesterday, and this is the second reason: being a legislator is a big deal. Being an effective committee chair, and before that (pre-1995) a subcommittee chair, is important. There's a tendency that I hear a lot of that the actual important Members of Congress are the ones in the leadership, and no one else really matters much. That's completely wrong in the Senate, and it's mostly wrong in the House. Now, it is true that in the minority party there's very little to be done, but majority-party chairs and subcommittee chairs really do matter. And not all of them are good, by any means, and so it makes quite a bit of difference to the government and the nation to have serious, effective legislators in those positions.

When Congress works well (and in many ways it did during the 111th), it's not just about party leaders; it really takes a lot of Members, in both Houses, with various areas of expertise and lots of legislative skill.

Barney Frank should absolutely be celebrated. Not as a great political talent who might have been or should have been, but as he actually was: a terrific Member of Congress.


  1. dead on. i loved barney since i was a kid and he was a state legislator, but how on earth could anyone see him as SOT or speaker. that's missing a lot about him.

  2. This guy is symbolic of all that's wrong with the contemporary Left. He's part of the reason the Left is being exterminated in rural US House districts across this country, which is much of the reason he's gettin' out of Dodge. Until the Left takes another direction, this process is gonna continue. We've seen a brief feint towards sensible moderation, with the "Blue Dogs", but that was just a feint, and the electorate caught on to it fairly quickly. I don't see them changing their minds any time soon, on current course.

  3. Frank was principled where it counts -- he always stood for individual freedom and against foreign entanglements. You can't say that about many Congressmen.

  4. Both in 2004 when Kerry was running for president, and in 2010 when Kennedy died, I was slightly hoping that Barney Frank might become the first openly gay senator. But I realized that being chair or ranking member of the House financial services committee is a much more important role, and one that he has really adapted to. A freshman senator, even one with that much experience legislating, just wouldn't have the same role.

  5. Frank was principled where it counts -- he always stood for individual freedom...

    Have to disagree here. Debt slavery is not individual freedom. The promotion of debt slavery for insider profit does not bolster individual freedom, but rather brutalizes our economy and livelihood as we see, thus creating moral hazard and corrupting our politics. Frank is the poster child for all this.

  6. ... you really can't have a Treasury Secretary who is always shooting off his mouth.

    In the wake of the recent disclosures about Henry Paulson's private briefings to hedge fund operators and the Goldman Sachs board while he was Treasury Secretary -- and in light of Tim Geithner's utter failure to make the case for the administration's economic policy -- you'll forgive me for wondering whether it might not be better to have a guy who knows how to talk to a camera as Treasury secretary.

  7. Anon, Frank can be the poster boy for whatever the right wing wants... but the truth is, he's no more responsible for federal debt than your average Congressman, liberal or conservative.

  8. ...I'm speaking about personal debt, Couves.


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