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Book Report: Frank

I suspect I would have read Barney Frank’s book even if I didn’t need an F for my A-to-Z year. And starting it, I would certainly have finished it; it’s a hell of a book. He’s a funny man, of course, and that helps, but he’s also a very smart man and a man with a long and fascinating history in public service. And, I suppose, it helps that I agree with him 90% of the time or more, both on policy substance and on process efficacy. I completely agree with his insistence on the benefits of incremental change, both because incremental improvements are real improvements that help real people and because each incremental improvement in a particular policy area makes it a little easier to make the next one. He has lived this history with LGBT rights; he has in the last twenty-five years seen it work the other way on affordable housing—and has also seen how refusal to accept incremental change and compromise is counterproductive, on both sides. It’s fascinating.

Where I disagree with him, I think, is in his dismissal of events and activities outside politics, and their ability to move public opinion and lead to change in people’s real lives and in their politics. He is dismissive—contemptuous is not too strong a word, I think—of protests and marches and rallies. He says (and he writes strikingly, I admire his writing) that if you have been to an event with people who agree with you, and you feel good about yourself afterward, then you almost certainly haven’t achieved anything. We all would like to believe that isn’t so, but… I think it is probably mostly so. Or at least somewhat so. Alas.

On the other hand, protests and marches and rallies can certainly go alongside a conventional inside political effort. Barney Frank does recognize this, although he is deeply skeptical that the groups holding the rallies will have the discipline to go through with it, and that’s from personal experience I have to believe. But when it happens, I think it works very well indeed. Let’s take, for example, the minimum wage fight, where street protests and rallies have been coupled with some very strong state and local legislative lobbying. Or, alternately, the T.E.A. Party movement, which successfully coupled political theater with direct mail to stymie a second economic stimulus package and make the sequester bite into popular public spending programs. And then—Gavin Newsom’s ridiculous and irresponsible decision to authorize same-sex marriage in San Francisco in 2004—did it make it easier for the other guys to pass Proposition 8? Did it delay legal same-sex marriage nation-wide? Barney Frank believes it did; I can’t really argue it. But I can’t say I regret that it happened, either.

I had for years talked about the Two Browns theory of government—you need Willie, who is willing—eager—to sell out to corporations and special interests to collect the crumbs of the deal for his own supporters, and you need Jerry, who is willing to forego alliances and give up power and influence in order to make unpopular points and maintain independence and freedom from corruption. Of course, that was two or three Jerry Browns ago, before he decided he actually was interested in governing, so the whole theory is shot to hell, but the point is that the two attitudes are both necessary. Without the Willie Browns you get no actual governance, and the lives of the people in the area are that much worse. Without the—well, without the, let’s say, Bernie Sanderses, or on the other side, I dunno, the Mick Mulvaneys?—without the uncompromising standers on principle, there’s little pressure on the folk sitting across the table from the Willie Browns, and the Willie Browns sell out for less and less.

If I were a legislator (and no, that would be gruesome and awful) I would hope to be a Barney Frank, a man who managed to maintain both his principles and his compromises, who always kept his eyes on his Henny Youngman lodestar: compared to what? Anything can be made better, any slide to the worse can be halted or at least slowed. People can be helped and any progress is progress. But the point is not the compromise, the point is the people. He helped an awful lot of them along the way.

And, you know, it’s hard not to read the current fiasco in the House—with the so-called House Freedom Caucus going all-in to prevent legislating from occurring at all—in light of Barney Frank’s career and his very real accomplishments as a consummate compromiser.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,