Rep. Barney Frank has always been known for his smarts, as well as his wit and barbed speech. Now, as unofficial House leader of the opposition, he’s in his element: the Democrats’ point man on the floor–and Newt’s nightmare.
Q: As we speak, congressional Republicans seem to control every major issue, every piece of legislation. Why?
A: They’ve controlled the agenda totally so far because it’s all been in the House. Gingrich defines success as getting a bill through the House. But Democrats won almost everything in the House in 1993-1994: campaign finance reform; economic stimulus; a ban on striker replacement. They all died in the Senate. Republicans are now learning that you run into real problems in the Senate. They’ll have to make compromises to get things through.
Q: But do they know how to make compromises?
A: Some do. Some think compromise is a terrible thing, and may not let the ones who know how to make compromises make them. The most interesting thing in the next year is going to be the Bob Dole-Phil Gramm rivalry. Gramm will have to trash Dole. Gramm understands that he is much closer to the ideological source of power in the Republican nominating conventions–the real conservatives, the ones who cheer for Pat Buchanan. Gramm is really presenting himself as the “electable Pat Buchanan,” the Pat Buchanan who doesn’t say things as crudely but doesn’t differ essentially on the issues.
Q: Is the GOP disciplined enough to keep the internecine squabbling from tearing it apart?
A: The Republican Party in the House now is the first ideologically disciplined national political party we’ve had. The reason we haven’t had discipline in American politics is you couldn’t defeat people. The open primary system undercuts party discipline because no matter how mad people get at you here in Washington, if you can go home and win the primary, then to hell with them. There’s very little they can do to punish you. The last person the Democrats punished, in fact, was on the Budget Committee. He was misbehaving, so we kicked him off the committee.
Q: Who was that?
A: Phil Gramm. He went home, ran for the Senate as a Republican, got re-elected, and became a real hero.
But now Republicans have overcome this problem: Newt Gingrich and his allies have established nomination control. The Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, etc., influence is very strong, so that those who don’t agree with Gingrich and the “Contract With America” are afraid that if they break with them, they’ll lose the primary. That’s what gives Gingrich discipline: fear. We don’t have any similar kind of fear on the Democratic side.
Q: But you seem optimistic about a Democratic strategy. Why is that?
A: Because the Republicans were very clever. They did all the easy things first. They’ve eaten their dessert. They started off with ice cream, then cake, and then pizza. Now comes the stuff they don’t want to eat. They polled on their Contract; they knew what were the most popular things–they did them up front. But none of the popular things had to do with existing reality. They can’t do them without doing things that are vastly unpopular.
What I have found is the public doesn’t like government in general. But it likes a lot of the elements that make up government.
Q: So are Democrats trying to get the word out that government is good?
A: Yes. We just assumed that everybody knew that and believed it. Now we’re saying, no matter how good your private sector is, nothing’s going to keep the lead out of the heads of kids in the inner city if the government doesn’t do it.
Q: Has the White House gone AWOL on this?
A: Not at all. I think it is doing exactly what it should do. The president has been very articulate. But when he makes those speeches what he gets is a cynical article from the press about how he tried to pick a fight with the Republicans today.
One thing the Republicans did was create their own media network. The right wing argued that they needed their own network because the general media has a left-wing bias. That is patently untrue. The mainstream media has a bias, but it’s not left-wing. It’s negative. The mainstream media has become increasingly hooked on negativism and nastiness and bad news.
What that means is that the right wing has its own network, and we have to rely on the mainstream network, which serves conservative purposes because it is so negative. Clinton has made several important speeches differentiating himself from the GOP, but the media has just ignored them.
Q: You’ve said that Newt Gingrich is the least substantive legislator you’ve ever seen–
A: –the least substantive major legislator. There are members of any legislative body who can be differentiated from streetlights only because their noses don’t light up. Gingrich is a clever man, and energetic, but you do not identify him with any legislative positions. That’s why he says so many wrong things. He doesn’t know a lot about substance. He half-reads some future-oriented books, and out of that comes a gabble that’s not terribly coherent. In all of his past years in Congress, he was not identified with abortion, or foreign policy, or defense policy–he’s a mechanic of power.
He’s very good at it. He understands that the way to get power is to delegitimize the opposition. He made his reputation in part by helping other Republicans learn how to be vituperative. He’s always said these things that were wildly irresponsible and often quite abusive of people, and he had the luxury of irrelevance, which is a great advantage. We didn’t take him seriously enough.
Q: What’s his Achilles’ heel?
A: It’s his lack of substance. It’s reality, which is very different from what he’s described to people. I think he’s peaked in terms of political power.
Ironically, for a guy who says he’s anti-government, he grossly exaggerates what government can do. According to him, it was the passage of the War on Poverty that corrupted the morals of all America. He thinks government has this enormous impact on people, ascribing to it power that no sensible person thinks it has.
Q: What can political activists learn from the religious right in terms of organizational and operational methods?
A: Some of what we can learn is a sense of discipline. It may be that being organized in the church gives you the ability to be cohesive, follow a leader–more than we’ll ever get with our fractured groups. We can learn the importance of general communications, talking to each other, and cheering each other on. That’s what they do, that’s why they have bigger turnouts than us, that’s why they have more influence on Congress. They understand the importance of communicating their basic views outside. We on the left still tend to think it’s more important to refine what we think in endless discussion with each other. We can also learn the importance of putting aside inevitable internal differences from time to time.
Q: Did you always want to be in politics?
A: Well, I realized I was gay when I was 13, and that bothered me significantly. I liked politics a lot, but I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, at a time when politics was not very hospitable to Jews, and terribly corrupt, and considering these three factors, it seemed to me that I wouldn’t be very successful.
When I got involved in politics, I was terribly closeted. I was terribly frightened of anyone finding out–I thought it would just destroy whatever kind of life I wanted to live. In 1972 when I decided to run for state Senate I made a conscious choice for a political career over a personal life.
Over the years, I felt very keenly how much I was depriving myself of what other people had. But once Herb [Herb Moses, Frank’s lover] and I got together, we started going to these political functions together because we wanted to, because they were fun. I was tired of being left out. It turned out that being gay didn’t hurt–it added a little bit of interest. In fact: It would help me fight the prejudice.
Q: You’ve said to the gay activist community, “Would you mind having me support you without having to offend everyone else on earth?” Why was that necessary?
A: Gay people have a different role than other minority groups. A lot of minority groups have had to fight for their political rights, but they haven’t had to fight as hard as we have for their identity, for having their existence acknowledged. Race has been much more devastating, but there’s one psychological factor [that’s different]: Very few black kids have ever had to worry about telling their parents that they were black.
Other groups had cultural self-expression before they had political tactics. When blacks marched on Washington in 1963, it was a disciplined political performance, not cultural self-expression. In 1993, a comedian, Lea Delaria, said how she would like to have sex with Hillary Clinton. Well, she said that from a platform. If Redd Foxx had gotten up during the black march and speculated about having sex with Jacqueline Kennedy, he would have been thrown into the Reflecting Pool, after the water was drained.
The gay community has tended to fuse cultural self-expression with political tactics. For us, our right to offend people is a political statement. Unfortunately it’s had a negative effect. Too much of our energy has gone into cultural self-expression, and not enough into conventional politics.
Q: What does Clinton need to do in these next two years to turn things around?
A: There are two things I wish he would do more of: Cut military spending–we can’t do as much as we want because we’re spending too damn much on the military; and he should be much more explicit on insisting on strong environmental and labor standards in treaties, so that we work to diminish the disparity between the U.S. and our trade partners.
Q: Do you think the time will come when someone other than the traditional white, male, straight guy will win the presidency?
A: Yeah, but it may be 20 or 30 years off. I think for vice president we’re at the point now where a Jewish, black, or female vice president could very well happen.
Q: So, who wins the presidency in ’96?
A: I’m not sure. It depends. It could be Pete Wilson. I hope it will be Clinton.
Q: You don’t want to guess?
A: I never guess.
Claudia Dreifus is a political interviewer and journalist.