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Barney Frank: Democratic Primary Voters Are the Problem

PRIMARY PROBLEMS
The ever-quotable former congressman has some thoughts on Bernie, Medicare for All, and why voters are demanding ideological purity.

Sam SteinFeb. 19, 2020 4:40 AM ET

Former Rep. Barney Frank is feeling angsty about the current state of the Democratic presidential primary and he believes that the voters are a big part of the problem. 

The ever-loquacious Massachusetts Democrat said in an interview Friday that he was disturbed by the degree to which the electorate seemed so easily wooed by candidates who were willing to spend gobs of money on television advertisements. 

“It’s troubling,” Frank told The Daily Beast. “Both [Mike] Bloomberg and [Tom] Steyer. People always forget, the voters are really at the center of this. I’m disturbed that Steyer’s getting a lot of votes in South Carolina because people who obviously know nothing about him—what is there to know?—are influenced by the ads.”

Having retired from Congress in 2013, Frank is no longer a central figure in his party’s legislative and political machinations. But he was at the vanguard of some of the major legislative achievements during the Obama era, giving him deep familiarity with what a future president could get done. And he has worked closely with several of the top candidates in the field. He’s also known for his blunt commentary, in which he often offers up a window into the id of his party peers. And, indeed, many of the fears he expressed on Friday are the ones privately shared by other Democratic lawmakers and operatives. 

Frank’s complaints about voter behavior didn’t end with their susceptibility to well-funded ad campaigns; he also criticized the demands for ideological purity being placed on the candidates. He pinpointed former Vice President Joe Biden’s troubles on the fact that he was being forced to defend a lengthy voting record that he had since evolved on or, in some cases, shared with his fellow candidates. 

“It’s a sad commentary on the electorate, by the way, because they are too unforgiving,” said Frank. “And frankly, there are people who are critical of Biden now who probably had the same positions back then.” 

And he suggested that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign had stumbled in large part because she tried to moderate her support for Medicare for All by including bridge-legislation that would have seen it implemented in stages. 

“She understood the political and administrative problems with Medicare for All, but she was afraid of losing the whole left to [Bernie] Sanders,” said Frank. “And by the way, I think that’s a troubling aspect of the Democratic electorate that so many of those people reacted so badly because she tried to be reasonable.” 

Frank has not endorsed in the 2020 race and said he had no plans to do so. But he has not been bashful about his disagreements with the current frontrunner. In 2016, he said support for Sanders’ nomination reflected a “lack of information” among voters. On Friday, he said the Vermont senator was largely a nonentity when it came to legislative accomplishments. Frank said he believed that Sanders legitimately thought he could pass his expansive domestic-policy agenda if he became president. But he called it an absurd proposition that would almost certainly backfire on Democrats. 

“It would be a disaster to try,” Frank said of pushing Medicare for All. “I think, by the way, and this is one of the things I argued to Sen. Warren: It damages a cause. The biggest problem for Obamacare was they weren’t ready for the rollout. The worst thing you can do if you are trying to get one of these programs in there is to go prematurely and fuck it up. So, no, I don’t think you can do it.”

Below is a transcript of our talk, edited slightly for purposes of reading. 

THE DAILY BEAST: What do you make of the primary so far?

FRANK: It just confirms the stupidity of having actually any two states go first, but particularly small ones and particularly a small one with a caucus. Very small margins of error are determining a lot. I understand why, they get over-interpreted. I hope this is not the case four years from now.

Beyond that, a couple things are clear, one is the split between the further left elements and the liberals. To claim they are moderates, by any American standard, is just wrong if you look at what the agenda is. I think the differences between them is how quickly and how much you assume the voters will take. And I think Biden, [Mayor Pete] Buttigieg, [Senator Amy] Klobuchar, etc... have the better part of that argument. It’s also clear now that roughly two-thirds of the primary voters, at least, support that more incremental approach and that’s among a largely white electorate because African Americans are on the more... let’s go more reasonably, side. They are a little less optimistic. 

That's the first thing and I think it leads into the question that Sanders has a problem because there is going to be a tendency for the field to winnow. And it is clear if one of the less-disruptive candidates begins to emerge and take support from the others, Sanders loses to that person, I think. And I don't see a lot of obstacles—if you look at the Biden, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, Buttigieg—there do not seem to be great obstacles for voters for one becoming voters for another. It is also the case that while Warren has campaigned more in the Sanders lane, her support is more evenly divided. So the question is: Does one of the anti-Sanders, a non-Sanders candidate, begin to become the candidate? And in that case, I think that candidate wins.

THE DAILY BEAST: Is Sanders being honest about what he can get done?

FRANK: Yes, but wrong. That is, I don’t think he’s fooling the public. I think he himself misjudges it. 

THE DAILY BEAST: How so?

FRANK: I think Sanders honestly believes that the country is there. I think he overestimates, in fact, the kind of support he’s got. I don’t understand why because frankly, his effort in office is not one of great success. He has really accomplished very little legislatively. He has accomplished a lot in terms of ideology. And that’s an important role, to be the guy out there speaking. So, I don’t know on what basis he thinks he can win these things.

I don’t think he is being dishonest. Maybe, he’s not being as explicit as he should be about the funding. You know the general rule, for an honest politician, is you tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. But the whole truth? Ehhhhh, let them get a subpoena. 

THE DAILY BEAST: You think he legitimately believes Medicare for All can be done in four years?

FRANK: Yeah. 

THE DAILY BEAST: Do you believe it can be done in four years?

FRANK: No. Of course not. It would be a disaster to try. 

During the debate on Obamacare, I said if we get the public option that’s the best way to get to Medicare, single payer for everybody. I think liberals should not be worrying about the slippery-slope argument. We should embrace it and say, ‘Look, here is the deal: Yes we want to start with this set of specifics, and many of us would like to see it go further. But understand that it won’t go further unless it’s popular, unless it works well.’ If you are a genuine conservative who thinks more government in medical care would be terrible, what are you worried about? It will get wiped out rather than extended. 

I think, by the way, and this is one of the things I argued to Sen. Warren, it damages a cause. The biggest problem for Obamacare was they weren’t ready for the rollout. The worst thing you can do if you are trying to get one of these programs in there is to go prematurely and fuck it up. So, no, I don’t think you can do it. 

No. Of course not. It would be a disaster to try.
Barney Frank on Medicare for All legislation

THE DAILY BEAST: So you’re of the mindset that they should pass a public option and let it take hold?

FRANK: Yes. No question. The people on the furthest left have a whole that is smaller than the sum of the parts. If you look at the specific programs, many of them are popular. But when you aggregate them into much bigger government, they become unpopular because people like the specifics but they don’t like the government. And, so, if you’re trying to do too much, you wind up doing nothing… Here is a good example. In 2009, we didn’t have the votes to get the public option through. Today, that is the lowest common denominator for the Democrats. Why? Because Obamacare worked. The success of what we did in 2009 and 2010 has now led to our being able to accomplish, politically, what we couldn’t have accomplished and weren’t able to accomplish at that time.

THE DAILY BEAST: Warren takes a different approach. She says you can get it done if you change the structures of governance.

FRANK: I don’t think she is going to be able to sustain that. Her health-care plan was totally different from everything else she did, which was really thought out. I think she has been undone, so far, maybe she recovers, by Sanders and the mindset of the people on the left, which is no compromise. They are just totally uninterested. So when Warren tried to make Medicare for All both in policy terms and electoral terms more acceptable, she got beat up for it. 

THE DAILY BEAST: But she goes even further by saying get rid of the legislative filibuster to get these things done.

FRANK: Yeah, and I’m for that. I’ve always been against the filibuster. But part of the problem with her Medicare position is... she says, ‘Well, I’m going to do it in third year and not the first year.’ She tried to square the circle and couldn’t do it. She understood the political and administrative problems with Medicare for All, but she was afraid of losing the whole left to Sanders. And by the way, I think that’s a troubling aspect of the Democratic electorate that so many of those people reacted so badly because she tried to be reasonable. 

This notion that pragmatism and idealism are irrelevant, it’s like what Lyndon Johnson said about some of these people: Their approach is kind of like pissing down your leg in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling but nothing changes. 

THE DAILY BEAST: Why do you think Biden is struggling?

FRANK: I do think if the order [of the states] had been reversed, he would have been doing better. Secondly, I think part of Joe’s problem is, Sanders and Buttigieg have an advantage in that they really don’t have any [legislative] records to defend. Sanders has been there a long time but he’s been the odd man out. Biden’s problem has been that he has been there too long, in that he now has a record.

THE DAILY BEAST: Is that a commentary on our political system that the more experience you have the harder it becomes to run?

FRANK: Yeah. It’s a sad commentary on the electorate, by the way, because they are too unforgiving. And frankly, there are people who are critical of Biden now who probably had the same positions back then. 

THE DAILY BEAST: What do you make of Bloomberg coming in with hundreds of millions of dollars?

FRANK: It’s troubling. Both Bloomberg and Steyer. People always forget, the voters are really at the center of this. I’m disturbed that Steyer’s getting a lot of votes in South Carolina because people who obviously know nothing about him—what is there to know?—are influenced by the ads. Secondly, yeah, it is very disturbing that a person can buy that kind of political impact. 

What differentiates Bloomberg from Steyer is that Bloomberg has the possibility to be the consensus non-Sanders because he has something of a record. But it is still very disturbing for democracy. And he’s even boasting about it. In one of the ads I saw, he’s saying, “I have the resources.”

It is very disturbing that a person can buy that kind of political impact.
Barney Frank

THE DAILY BEAST: That’s the point though, right? That if you want to beat Trump, he’s the safest bet precisely because of his money.

FRANK: Yes. I can beat Trump with the money. By the way, I do have to say one thing, in one ad it says, “Have you heard the slogan, ‘Mike Can Do It’?” I don’t know anybody who has. I don’t know anybody who has heard it. The other thing he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with… is he says Mike can get it done and he talks about how he and Obama worked together on gun control. What did they get done on gun control? Nothing. Literally, on his signature issue they didn’t get anything done. I wish they had. 

THE DAILY BEAST: Nothing at the federal level for sure. But they did make progress at the state level.

FRANK: What state was Obama working on? He’s talking about “me and Obama working together to get gun control.” 

THE DAILY BEAST: Let me close by asking you about Buttigieg...

FRANK: Well it is spectacular. Look, I have said this before, in the 50 years I’ve been working on LGBT rights, etc… I have to admit, I have always been insufficiently optimistic about where we would be three years later. The rate of progress has been enormous. And I’m very pleasantly surprised by how well Buttigieg is doing, in two ways. First of all, by being so able and such an attractive candidate—articulate, thoughtful, reasonable—he furthers the diminution of the negative views. But the fact that he was even given a chance to do that shows how much progress we have made in diminishing the negatives. The problem is we haven’t gotten rid of them altogether. We are in a 5-percent situation here, so people need to be realistic. I wish I could believe there is nobody who would vote for the Democrat who would not vote for them because of their sexual orientation. I’m not sure of that. But it is an enormously positive thing the demonstration of how well he is doing. 

THE DAILY BEAST: Did you see the video of the woman caucusing in Iowa who found out that day that he was openly gay and refused to support him?

FRANK: Well, that’s the problem. And the problem is it doesn’t take a lot of people like that. I don’t think that’s a large percentage but it is 4 or 5 percent of the people who would otherwise vote Democratic, then you have a problem. And people need to be honest about that. 

By the way, one other thing while we are at it. One other prejudice that has now apparently completely disappeared: Judaism makes no difference. When Lieberman was nominated people were concerned. 

THE DAILY BEAST: Maybe the primary but what about it being used against Bloomberg or Sanders in a general election?

FRANK: Well, Bloomberg as a rich Jew, yeah. But it would be hard for Trump to do that.

THE DAILY BEAST: Why?

FRANK: Because of his Netanyahu ass-kissing. I will say this but I think that anybody who would vote against a candidate because he or she was Jewish wasn’t going to vote Democratic anyway.

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