Democrats have never recovered from the trauma of 1994, when they lost the House of Representatives to Newt Gingrich’s Republicans and found themselves in the minority for the first time in 40 years. One Democrat emerged relatively unruffled, however: Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
“I’m used to being in the minority,” he famously wisecracked in a 1996 interview. “I’m a left-handed, gay Jew. I’ve never felt automatically a member of any majority.”
There are several layers of meaning there. Obviously, he’s always been an outsider. With Frank, though, there’s an edge. Though passionately outspoken on both gay and Jewish concerns, from Iranian nukes to gays in the military, he’s never let labels define his work. He’s treated identity issues not as personal missions but as the proper concerns of all fair-minded Americans. He’s been a legislator for the majority first, minorities second. It’s an old-fashioned liberalism. As he wrote in a 1992 book, it’s what Democrats have forgotten.
The bills he’s sponsored over 30 years in Congress address broad, national concerns: the environment, railroad security, help for families of fallen police officers and, most single-mindedly, the financial system. His popular image is a flame-throwing liberal with a lacerating wit. (On Ronald Reagan’s napping during meetings: “It’s not the dozing off of Ronald Reagan that causes us problems. It’s what he does on those moments when he’s awake.”) His record, though, reflects pragmatic, bipartisan lawmaking.
Search the Web for “Barney Frank” and “mortgage crisis” and you’ll find a string of conservative attacks branding Frank the main culprit. The charges: He publicly defended the federally sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2003 and 2004, even as their insolvency was surfacing. He took over the House Financial Services Committee in 2007, when the Democrats recaptured the House, putting him in charge of the banks when they collapsed. He co-authored the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, partly reversing the bank deregulation that liberals say caused the crisis. Conservatives say the law worsened things.<> The accusations are half-baked, but passionate. A 2008 interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News turned into a six-minute screaming match, now a sensation on YouTube. Gingrich called for Frank’s imprisonment this past October.
Democrats’ analysis of the crisis isn’t much better. The usual suspect is the banking deregulation enacted by the Republican Congress in 1999, capping two decades of economic deregulation begun under Reagan. The bank deregulation largely repealed the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial banks, which serve individual depositors, from investment banking, with its high-risk market maneuvers. Free to play, banks began speculating wildly with clients’ mortgages.