Salon features an interview today with my favorite Jewish "Irishman", Barney Frank, about his new book. He's such a great political strategist, you should really read the entire piece:
As you were writing your memoir, what audience did you have in mind? Was it for the contemporary reader or more for posterity?
Oh, the contemporary reader. I had two goals. My biggest single goal was to have a continuation of my public policy drive; the thing I was most trying to accomplish was to help turn around this anti-government attitude and to explain to people why we should be more supportive of government and, in particular, to explain how I think we can accomplish that, politically. I think it also has some use for LGBT people, although by now I think the notion that you can prosper in the face of prejudice is fairly widespread.
To be honest, I started out wanting to write a very political-message-type book but the people at the publisher’s persuaded me that people would also like to read about my life.
One of the messages I try to get across is to my allies on the left, that we would be better off if they were more disciplined. I wish Occupy acted more like the Tea Party — politically, not substantively, obviously— and I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with friends on the left that these expressive demonstrations are only rarely the best way to go and that in any case, you need to get involved politically.
It’s been my frustration that some of the groups I disagree with like the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party do a much better job of mobilizing and influencing the political process than the people I agree with. That was a significant part of what I was trying to get across in the book.
When you’re in these debates with your friends, are there any stances on issues that you think have changed over time among the left?
Yeah, the civil rights movement. At the March on Washington in 1993, Lea DeLaria said, to great applause and hilarity, isn’t it wonderful that there’s now a First Lady I’d like to fuck? If Red Foxx had said that at the March on Washington about Jackie Kennedy 30 years earlier, he would have been physically kicked out of there.
If there’s one book I wish I could get people to read, it’s Taylor Branch’s book about Martin Luther King. It’s a great example of what a strategist he was. Today there’s a movement towards an overall civil rights bill but the blacks never had that. The ’64 civil rights bill was very important, but then came the ’65 Voting Rights Act and then the ’68 housing bill.
Properly understood, the civil rights model is a very good one to follow, but people have this sort of romanticized, simplified version. It’s the need to strategize, if you really want to change reality.
Why do you think that simplified version of history is so appealing to so many?
First of all, you are by definition talking about issues that people feel very deeply about. These are morally compelling issues, I agree; that’s why I’ve spent my whole life trying to deal with them! When you’re motivated by some deep moral passion, you want to express that passion, and you’re also dealing with conditions you believe are causing great harm to people— which is, again, accurate— and you’re in a hurry to fix them. You don’t want to help people slowly when they’re greatly in need!
The reality can be very frustrating, too. I would say this: One of the things that’s been exacerbated by the divide in our media is that people on the left do not understand the strength of the opposition we face. That is, they’re inclined to think, well, this is just politicians standing in the way of overwhelming public opinion— I wish! They are frustrated when we tell them, look, we don’t have the votes to do this right away and they’re inclined to think we’re not fully committed.
Finally, there’s something much more fun— in the profound sense— about this. Joining with people you agree with in this passionate demonstration of your feeling, that’s much more enjoyable than trying to get votes. There’s an emotionally expressive content to that. Our dirty little secret is that most political work is boring. It’s bit by bit, piece by piece. Getting out there and demanding or getting yourself arrested or blocking something, that’s a powerful act, but it’s unfortunately much less effective.
What do you mean by “political work”?
By nature, the kind of political work I’m talking about involved trying to move people who are not fully committed to you. You don’t work on registering the voters who are already deeply motivated; they’ve already registered and they’re ready to vote. If you’re trying to lobby legislators, you don’t only lobby the legislators that are in 100 percent agreement with you. The kind of work I’m talking about brings you into contact with people who are anywhere from only mildly committed to openly skeptical of you, but it’s much more enriching to be with people who agree with you 100 percent and are going to tell you how wonderful you are.
Are there any figures from your career that come to mind when you think of people who were able to strike the balance you’re talking about?
Allard Lowenstein was both a very articulate political strategist and a guy who was very forceful; Martin Luther King was an inspirational moral leader but he was also a very thoughtful strategist. Those are two examples.
You say you didn’t begrudge Clinton for recognizing during his presidency that the country was still in a conservative mood. But you also say that you were unhappy with what you perceived as a lack of willingness on his part to put a plan into motion to eventually change that reality. Do you buy the narrative that’s popular on the left that sees Obama as more like Reagan, more concerned with changing the trajectory?
Two things: First of all, what Reagan was preaching to people was, here’s the deal: I can cut your taxes and you won’t feel any losses. I can give you more and more and you’ll have to do less and less. Reagan never asked people do to anything that wasn’t wildly popular.
As far as Obama is concerned, I think his problem is that he’s well-intentioned but he underestimated how vehemently right-wing the Republicans have become. He’s finally overcome that, which you can see in his recent budget; he’s doing the right thing, but it took him longer than it should’ve. In fairness to him, we’ve never in American history had a party so in control of such an ideologically extreme faction.
How might his presidency have looked if he had realized that sooner?
I think he would have been more into arguing for the policies explicitly, or even mentioning what a bad situation he inherited. The one thing I would have done— and it’s going to sound so conservative— is that I would have led with financial reform and not healthcare. I would want to do both, but I think with healthcare he underestimated the extent to which they were going to turn against the proposal that was close to what many conservatives have been for.I would have begun with financial reform and hit it harder. On the stimulus, again, I would have drawn the lines a little more sharply and I would not have bargained with Social Security.
Go read the rest, including what he has to say about Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.