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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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JZ: Did that make you more pushy at the time?

BF: No. That’s what I would think about when I went to bed, but once the game started, you played the game. I’d been enough of a professional by then. I’d been three years with the mayor, eight years in the legislature. The bell rings, and you start swinging. You don’t stop and think about it. It wasn’t until after I was reelected in 1982 that I thought of myself as a long-term member of Congress.

JZ: So it was at the start of your second term that you started to think of yourself as a long-term member?

BF: After I won reelection in ’82, I was in a part of my district that was somewhat Republican. A guy I was friendly with, a Republican who’d been in the state legislature with me, said, “Well, this job is yours as long as you want it.” I said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

JZ: People complain about the increased polarization and partisanship, and they attribute it, in part, to safe districts.

BF: No—is there more polarization, in your judgment, in the House than there is in the Senate?

JZ: Is there more polarization where?

BF: In the House than in the Senate.

JZ: No.

BF: Okay, think about, what did you just ask me? Literally, that just destroys the hypothesis. That just makes nonsense out of it.

There are other factors. The main reason for the increase in partisanship is Newt Gingrich and the success of his decision to demonize the opposition as a way to win. That was reinforced by the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party, And finally, modern communications. Twenty years ago, people had a common set of facts that they read. They read opinion journalists, but they got their information generally from newspapers and from broadcasts. Now the activists, left and right, live in parallel universes which are both separate and echo chambers for each. If you’re on the left, you listen to MSNBC, you go to the blogs, Huffington Post, etc., and others, and you basically hear only what you agree with. If you’re on the right, you watch Fox News and the talk shows and you hear only what you agree with. That’s greatly intensified it. You know, it’s the primaries: People who want to be moderate lose. And when we try to compromise, what you find is not people simply objecting to the specific terms of the compromise but the activists object even to your trying to compromise, because they say, “Look, everybody I know agrees with us, so why are you giving in?”

JZ: So when you got here in ’81 and Gingrich got here in ’79—

BF: Correct, he wasn’t a very important factor then.

JZ: At what point did—

BF: He’s never been much of a legislator. This notion that he’s so bright, he talks about having ideas—I never considered him to be one of the brighter ones. He was a great political strategist and tactician. In the early eighties he emerged with a group of other right-wingers demonizing Democrats, and that’s basically when you began to know him, as a McCarthyite.

JZ: But you were saying earlier that in the legislature no one’s your boss, it’s all about relationships. What accounted for Republicans following Gingrich?

BF: He convinced more and more of them that that was what it was going to take to take power. Because they had been in the minority for so long, they had no stake in the system. They were ready to try and shake it up.

JZ: But was there anything about him in particular? I’m curious about the role a personality plays in all of this.

BF: Well, he’s very driven, he’s not very ideological, he’s not very public-policy oriented, frankly—you’ve seen the switches back and forth. And he tapped into the frustration of Republicans that they weren’t in power.

Reagan came to power in ’80, and the Republicans really thought, This is it, we’re going to win. But Reagan’s presidency was not followed by any congressional gains; in fact, the Republicans peaked congressionally in ’80. By the mid-eighties, it became clear that the Republicans were going to be a permanent minority. Gingrich was Moses, he could lead them out of that.

JZ: Did you see the change in your Republican colleagues? Was there less of a willingness to work with you?

BF: Into the nineties, you saw them move further and further to the right. By the Clinton years, we generally took the view that we might get some Republican votes but we wouldn’t have them if they were determinative in the outcome.


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