The Bipartisan Zen of Barney Frank

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The sometimes-combative senator has good news: An era of partisan gridlock may be ending.

Over his 30 years in Congress, Barney Frank has waged more than his fair share of partisan warfare, happily raining acid quips on his Republican foes along the way. This is a man who derided moderate GOPers as "reverse Houdinis" who "tie themselves up in knots and then tell you they can't do anything because they're tied up in knots." He once compared tangling with a conservative heckler to "arguing with a dining room table." As he announced last year that he would not run for re-election, he made sure sure to slip in a dig at his longtime nemesis, Newt Gingrich, telling the assembled reporters he would "neither be a lobbyist or a historian."

And yet, as Frank prepares for his political retirement, he seems oddly upbeat about the chance that Democrats and Republicans will soon find a way to move beyond the ideological gridlock that has hamstrung Washington's ability to govern.

 Washington Ideas Forum Conversations with leading newsmakers. A special report

Speaking with the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin today at the Washington Ideas Forum, he said that in his view, today's hyper-partisan Washington is only a recent advent. In 2007 and 2008, he pointed out, Congressional Democrats worked with the Bush administration to pass a stimulus bill aimed at fixing the faltering economy, put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under government conservatorship, and implement the bank bailout.

One might argue that all of these examples were the product of desperate politicians coming together to face a crisis, not of a smoothly functioning Washington. But to Frank, today's problems apparently aren't rooted in the long-term demographic trends that have made red states redder and blue states bluer, or gerrymandering that has made primary challengers the biggest threat to incumbents (he mentioned neither). Here, instead, seems to be his take:

"Bipartisanship in America ended on January 20, 2009, with Mitch McConnnell saying 'my new job is to sink the president,'" Frank said.

Well, that probably didn't help, we can give him that.

During his talk, the pugnacious Congressman defended the financial regulation legislation that bears his name from criticism that it didn't do enough to end the problem of "too-big-to-fail" banks. "Sarah Palin was probably right: we did do death panels in 2010. But they were for big banks, not old ladies," he said of Dodd-Frank's provision giving the government the ability to shut down faltering financial institutions.





He argued that, with Obama's election victory, Democrats have a mandate to raise the top income tax rates, pointing out that George W. Bush hadn't even won the popular vote when he passed the current rates through Congress. ("If minus half a million [votes] gave you a mandate to put the tax cuts in, 3.3 million plus ought to give you a mandate to get them out.")

But the most striking aspect of Frank's talk was his certainty that, as the economy heals (and Republicans back off of extreme positions that may have led to their electoral drubbing this month), some of the partisan enmity plaguing Washington will begin to fade.  "There's a good chance we'll get back to the legitimate competition between the parties of the kind you had before 2010," he said.

Maybe Frank's got a point. And if he's wrong, we can be sure he'll still be around to do color commentary on the fight.

***

At the start of the interview, Ross Sorkin made sure to ask Frank about this thoughts of the increasingly surreal scandal surrounding ex-CIA Director David Petraeus and now General John Allen. Frank said he mostly has been amazed that so much had been said via email, and offered up a bit of advice he got during his early days in politics:

"You never write when you can talk, you never talk when you can nod, and you never nod when you can wink," he said. "You'd think they'd learn from White Collar Crime. Don't they know that nobody would have been indicted since Ponzi if it weren't for emails?"




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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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