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A Progressive "Grand Bargain" With Barney Frank

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Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) posted a response to a post I had written about his so-called "Grand Bargain" that is instructive on a number of different levels.

First and foremost is how politicians use the claim of "misrepresentation." Frank says I have somehow "misrepresented" him by quoting him directly saying he wants to work "with the business community on some of the things they have been working for like more foreign trade and outsourcing." Frank was reiterating what the Boston Globe reported he said, which was that he "would agree to reduce regulations and support free-trade deals in exchange for businesses agreeing to greater wage increases and job benefits for workers." He takes exception to me saying his "grand bargain" was to push "more corporate-written trade pacts that have no wage, environmental or human rights protections." But, that is the definition of supporting "free trade" and "more outsourcing" as it is defined today - period. There is no debate that our current free trade policy and policies that support "more outsourcing" are ones that are A) corporate-written abd B) include no wage, environmental or human rights protections. Continuing those current policies, as Frank said was part of his "bargain," would be continuing to have none of those protections.

So there's no misrepresentation there at all. It's actually just accurately describing what he proposed, teaching us once again that when a politician uses the term "misrepresentation" he/she usually means "I didn't really mean what I actually said because now I'm getting heat for it outside the insulated corridors of power."

Frank then uses the age-old move of going on to say "but wait, look - I am good on other issues!" It's like a magician trying to make you look in one hand so that you take your eye off the other. He cites his "insistence that American business support universal health care." Hell, I'll be the first one to say that Frank has been a leader on all sorts of great issues - from health care to getting CEO pay under control. I've even trumpeted his work in my own past writing. But all that stuff doesn't negate the fundamental question about his "grand bargain" and the comments he made at his press conference last week introducing it. Just because you have done great stuff on some issues, doesn't mean you are automatically immune from questions about other issues.

All of this said, I'm very glad to hear that Frank is, shall we say, "clarifying" his "grand bargain" proposal to make sure people understand he will oppose our current "free trade" pacts "that do not contain labor and environmental standards and respect for human rights." That gets us to another key point on Frank's post: that politicians will often move to the right unless there are strong, consistent progressive voices holding them accountable.

Frank huffs and puffs that I didn't call him up (apparently, it's unacceptable to actually cite the direct and already-published quotes of a politician without calling them to see if it is OK - and hey - why didn't he call me if he was upset?). But the real issue here is that politicians don't like to be called on the carpet when they are negotiating with Serious People in Washington. Frank was trying to communicate with Washington's business community, and he didn't like it that someone started publicly asking questions. He's not alone of course - politicians and political operatives hate when the public actually asks questions. It's the same reasons why many of Obama's followers immediately freak out when anyone asks substantive questions about Obama's actual positions. But, here's a newsflash: that's the progressive movement's job - to ask questions, and make sure the people who lead in our name are legislating our agenda.

Finally, and most typically, Frank ends his post with a classic exhortation against anyone raising questions about the pay-to-play political system that is our democracy. He says it is unacceptable to raise the possibility "that I am doing this to raise money or that I am selling out to K St. moneyed interests." Such a line of questioning "has no basis in a legitimate debate over issues." Right, because policy debates exist in this nice, warm, fuzzy place that is all about ideals, and morals and convictions and has absolutely nothing to do with who is giving money to whom. Please, Congressman Frank - you are one of the smartest Members of Congress in the institution - spare us this holier than thou nonsense that has no relation to how politics really works. We are smarter than that.

As I wrote in my book, Hostile Takeover, money is not something that exists outside of the debates in Washington - money is what drives the debates in Washington. This isn't to say that Frank personally pocketed a huge amount of cash in order to propose this "grand bargain" (though, of course, we aren't supposed to look at the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's taken from lobbyists, Wall Street, etc.). But it is to say that everything that happens in our nation's capital happens with an eye on the Big Money interests. This has been especially obvious since the election, as Democrats have been running around bragging to reporters about how much love they are now getting from lobbyists (take a look at this Hill Newspaper article for just a small taste). As I wrote, those lobbyists "are shoveling money at Democrats to get deals like the one Frank has proposed." That's just a statement of fact, whether Frank wants to acknowledge it or not - K Street will be more than happy to get more free trade pacts and more deregulation bills in exchange for minimum wage increases and basic union rights that should already be a given in the new Democratic Congress.

Let me reiterate - I take Frank at his word that, despite his recent declarations, that's not the "grand bargain" he has in mind. He's right - he has been a champion for various liberal causes in the past, no one is taking that away from him now, and we should trust that he will be a major ally in the new Congress.

But remember - the fundamental dynamic has now changed. The Democrats now have real power to do things - good or bad. He, like other progressive lawmakers, should appreciate that there is now an emerging progressive infrastructure to support him when he wants to champion our agenda, and go after his opponents - Democratic turncoats, Republicans and K Street lobbyists - who get in his way when he pushes our agenda. But like every other Member of Congress, he should also be aware that this progressive infrastructure is progressive first - and is not going to be silent when Democrats publicly move in a direction that suggests our core economic justice platform is going to be compromised.

So here's my "grand bargain" for you, Congressman Frank: we the progressive movement will help you promote the hell out of your proposals to make this economy more fair for regular working stiffs, if, as you pledged, you will not offer up concessions on the core economic justice agenda that don't need to be made. Now that sounds like a "grand bargain" that helps everyone.