October 21, 2010
Barney Frank FloundersBy Frank Crimi
Congressman Barney Frank is in the fight of his political life. In the latest National Journal Political Insider's Poll, surveying 111 Democrat operatives, over two-thirds of the respondents believed Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives after the November 2010 election. Underscoring the apprehension held by the polled insiders was their added belief that the losses would extend beyond moderate "Blue Dog" lawmakers to include a number of prominent progressive representatives.
Conventional wisdom had long held the most likely Democrat victims in the House would come from the ranks of these forty or so conservative Blue Dogs. However, 2010 has proven to be a very unconventional political year. Keeping in line with the National Journal poll, political analyst Charlie Cook shows up to eighty congressional Democrat seats in serious play, which adds further proof that a good many progressive lawmakers seem destined to meet the same fate as their more moderate colleagues.
"Tsunami" has been the word most often employed by pundits to describe the projected electoral beating Democrats are poised to suffer in November. Given both these survey and poll results, it's now a particularly apropos term, as tsunamis don't neatly discriminate about what, or in this case who, gets swept away in their path.
Progressive Democrat electoral concerns are no more evident than in the race for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district, which sees longtime ultra-liberal incumbent Barney Frank in dire political straits, squared off against a relatively unknown challenger, Sean Bielat, a thirty-five-year-old businessman and Marine Corps veteran.
The cause of Frank's concern is recent polling that shows him with an approval rating below 50%, a shocking and perhaps lethal position for a thirty-year progressive incumbent from the bluest of blue states to find himself in. The poll results led The Cook Report to downgrade Frank's electoral chances from "solid" to "likely."
Adding to Frank's electoral unease was the recent meeting held between Bielat and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in which Bielat received assurances he would be receiving strong Republican financial support in the final weeks of his campaign, a prospect leading one GOP strategist to observe that the NRCC felt the race to be very "winnable."
Now, to some observers, the NRCC mulling over spending money against a longtime liberal congressman, in Massachusetts of all places, could be viewed largely as a frivolous use of money, wasting resources better spent elsewhere. However, for others, in a year of unbridled GOP optimism, the NRCC's monetary support of Bielat may be better compared to a craps player laying chips on Twelve or Two. The odds may not be great, but a small bet can garner a huge payoff.
For Republicans, nothing would be sweeter than seeing Frank's career come to a blistering end. Already emboldened by the forced early retirement of Senator Chris Dodd for his involvement in the Countrywide mortgage scandal coupled with the defeat of turncoat Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democrat senatorial primary, Republicans are understandably wetting their lips at the prospect of adding Frank's name to that ignominious list.
While Frank still enjoys some great incumbent advantages over Bielat, namely money and strong name recognition, the chances of Frank's ouster from office are still real. For starters, Frank is the poster child for what has roiled voter anger in 2010. In an anti-Washington and anti-incumbent year, with the public placing a premium on personal and political accountability, Frank strikes out swinging.
The ultimate Washington insider, Barney Frank's handprints are all over past and current legislative failings. From his perch as Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank led the congressional charge to pressure private bankers and government mortgage lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to severely lower eligibility criteria for low-income home borrowers -- dangerous lending practices that led directly to the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in 2008.
Since then, Frank has been a central player and advocate in pushing through the Democrats' highly divisive and unpopular legislative agenda of health care reform, bailouts, stimulus packages, and financial regulatory reform.
Lacking a popular legislative record to crow about, Frank now has the added misfortune to be campaigning in a year when a candidate's personal character has more cachet with voters, who have seemingly reached the end of their tether with Washington's culture of corruption.
As such, voters in his district may no longer be willing to look the other way with regard to Frank's own long record of ethical entanglements. Starting in 1990 with charges that his male lover ran a prostitution ring out of Frank's Washington home, they have morphed over the years to include influence peddling on behalf of OneUnited Bank to vacation treks on private jets of special interests.
Adding to this gloomy portrait is the uncomfortable fact that Frank faces a young, successful, and articulate challenger in Bielat, who comes across as the "anti-Frank." Long described throughout his career as acerbic, condescending, and entitled, Barney Frank has been forced to undergo a personality metamorphosis this campaign, trying desperately to turn himself into a more affable candidate.
Unfortunately, the character transplant hasn't fully taken, as Frank let the mask drop recently during a debate with Bielat, demanding eight times for Bielat to stop interrupting him, even though Bielat wasn't speaking during any of those outbursts.
Frank hasn't kept his swipes confined to his opponent but has branched out to his own constituents, calling one woman's views on his vote for health care reform "vile, contemptible nonsense," adding that "having a conversation with you is like arguing with a dining room table."
What may prove, however, to be the final nail in Barney Frank's political coffin comes from the belated realization that the 4th congressional district is not as safe as once believed. Exhibit A is Republican Scott Brown carrying the district, albeit narrowly, in his upset win over Martha Coakley in the state's January 2010 special Senate election.
The added problem for Frank is that many of those same Brown voters may be angrier now than in January, given that their vote for Brown was ostensibly cast so he could be the "41st vote" to kill health care reform -- a prospect that never materialized, due in no small part to the diligent efforts of Barney Frank.
Frank, however, is in no rush to remind voters of his involvement in health care reform -- or his role in the subprime mortgage collapse, for that matter. He has been either studiously downplaying his own legislative part or striving mightily to airbrush himself completely out of the picture, apparently unaware that a skeptical and fully engaged electorate has access to the internet and YouTube and is possessed with memories longer than a gnat's.
But that's really not too much of a surprise, because in the end, Barney Frank, like many of his liberal colleagues, has been too long accustomed to never being challenged, whether by capable political opponents, an objective media, or, until recently, the voters themselves.
Finally forced to actually articulate and defend the full range of their unpopular decisions and abuses of power, Frank and his colleagues find themselves strangers in a new political world, speaking an unfamiliar dialect. So, it's not too much of a shock to see their political skill sets dramatically atrophied and ill-equipped for the rigors of a 2010 campaign.
Perhaps Barney Frank and other progressives, like Senators Barbara Boxer and Harry Reid, will still somehow survive this particular election and serve on, but the more accurate reality will prove to be the reverse. Like the dinosaurs, once masters of their world, these politicians remain unaware of the approaching asteroid that will forever change the political landscape, rendering them extinct.