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Rep. Barney Frank Headshot

Refight the Nineties?

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By historical standards -- or any other -- the Democrats have an excellent set of presidential candidates from which to choose this season, and I look forward to campaigning enthusiastically and without reservation for our nominee. But this does not mean that we should be suppressing the discussion of differences, and it is in this framework that I think it is important to express my discomfort with a major theme of Senator Obama's campaign.

I am referring to his denigration of "the Washington battles of the 1990's" and, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, of those who fought them. My unease is compounded by the very explicit note of generational politics in his approach. I should note that I cannot be accused of self interest in taking exception to those who lament the baneful influence of baby boomers on our current politics, having myself been born well before the boom. Indeed, being much too young to claim membership in the greatest generation and even being a couple of years short of being a depression baby, I am reconciled to being part of a fairly large birth cohort that goes undesignated in our pop sociology. But since I do not have much intellectual respect for generational politics, I can live with this chronological anomie. I say that because generational politics presumes that I should have a different set of political values today than I had in the sixties when I began my political activity. But I cannot think of a cause that I cared deeply about then that I felt it appropriate to abandon as I aged, nor an important issue in which I had no interest then, but which now gets my attention.

This brings me to my particular concern with Senator Obama's vehement disassociation of himself and those he seeks to represent from "the fights of the nineties." I am very proud of many of the fights I engaged in in the nineties, as well as the eighties and before. Senator Obama also bemoans the "same bitter partisanship" of that period and appears to me to be again somewhat critical of those of us who he believes to have been engaged in it.

I agree that it would have been better not to have had to fight over some of the issues that occupied us in the nineties. But there would have been only one way to avoid them -- and that would have been to give up. More importantly, the only way I can think of to avoid "refighting the same fights we had in the 1990's", to quote Senator Obama, is to let our opponents win these fights without a struggle.

It would have been nice in the nineties not to have had to fight to defend a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, and I would be very happy if that fight ended tomorrow. I was troubled when Newt Gingrich and his right wing band took over Congress after the election of 1994 and sought to put an end to programs to deal with continuing racial discrimination and the resulting inequality, and I am even more distressed that we have to continue to fight that battle against a Republican party largely opposed to all of these efforts -- consider the Bush Justice Department and its role in dealing with people's right to vote. As a gay man, additionally, I would have been delighted in the nineties if our conservative opponents had been willing to recognize our rights to be treated fairly under the law, and I would have saved a lot of time, as recently as this past year, if there was not continued strong right wing opposition to the "radical" position that people should not be denied jobs because of their fundamental nature, or that hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be treated less seriously than those based on racial or religious prejudice. These are three of the major fights in which I was engaged in the nineties, and I literally do not understand what Senator Obama means when he says that he does not want to keep fighting them. I know that he understands that those who were opposed to all three of those causes in which many of us deeply believe in the nineties continue their opposition, and I do not understand how we can avoid fighting those battles other than by conceding them, which I know he does not advocate.

In some cases, Senator Obama does not seem to remember what some of the fights of the nineties were. I agree that it would be a good thing to have the 2008 election be in part "about whether to...pass universal health care" but that in fact is one of the central fights we had in the nineties. The effort of many of us to pass a universal health care plan is precisely one of the battles of the nineties, and it seems to me one that we very much want to keep fighting. Again, the only alternative to fighting it is losing it by concession.

Another major fight of the nineties which seems to me essential -- not simply relevant -- to the current election is tax policy. Few fights that we had in the period when Senator Obama is denigrating our battles was more important than the successful effort to pass President Clinton's tax plan in 1993. That battle was so hotly fought that it contributed, sadly, to the Republican takeover the next year, because a number of the Democrats who had voted for a progressive tax plan which made the tax code less unfair and provided important revenues for important programs lost their seats because of it. I make no apologies for having fought that fight, and in fact I hope that whoever is the President of the United States in 2009 will take up the battle against excessive tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country, both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of being able to afford fundamental programs essential to the quality of our lives. I also remember fighting hard during that period for the rights of working men and women to join unions, and while we lost that once the Republicans took power in '94, we did score one victory when we were still in the majority in passing, in a "bitter partisan battle," the Family and Medical Leave Act -- the need for us to wage that battle is once again as strong if not stronger in 2008 than it was in 1995.

Finally, I do take pretty strong exception to Senator Obama's evenhanded denunciation of "the same bitter partisanship" of the nineties. It is true that American politics became much more partisan in the nineties, but that was primarily the result of the successful right wing takeover of the Republican Party, embodied at the time--he has since become a little more moderate for some tactical purpose--by Newt Gingrich. Again I do not think those of us who fought back against Gingrich's poisoning of the atmosphere should apologize for that. If anything, the apologies should come from those who were too slow to respond. It was Gingrich and his right wing allies who decided to inject a much harsher note of partisanship by explicitly rejecting the notion that the Democrats were honorable people with whom they disagreed, and instead decided, as Gingrich's own printed and taped materials argued, to portray us as treasonous, corrupt, immoral and otherwise vile. And when Gingrich was forced by his own flaws to step aside, Tom DeLay took up those cudgels with a little less rhetorical flourish but with an even heavier hand. If Senator Obama was denouncing the outrageous tactics of Gingrich and DeLay, I would be very much in support of his comments. Instead, he evenhandedly denounces the "bitter partisanship" of that period and seems to me to be distancing himself equally from the Gingrich/DeLay attack and the efforts of many of us to combat it. The comment calls to mind the marvelous words of John L. Lewis, at a point when Franklin Roosevelt pronounced a plague "on both their houses" with regard to a significant labor dispute. "It ill behooves one who has supped at labor's table and who has been sheltered in labor's house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace."

As a Democratic Member of the U.S. House of Representatives today, I close by noting that there does appear to me to be a strong contradiction between two of the criticisms we sometimes receive. One is the approach taken by Senator Obama, which I have just tried to describe, which expresses distaste for too much fighting and too much anger, with too little effort to govern in a way that bridges differences. But contrary to that, I often hear that we Democrats in the Congress have not fought hard enough, that we have not stood up enough for what we believe in, and have been too prone to conciliate. I personally do not think that either criticism is justified, but I know as a fact that they cannot both be true.

I fully agree with Senator Obama that we should be arguing for the policies we advocate and the values from which they derive in a manner that appeals to the broadest possible segment of the public. His own ability to do that is one of our great assets. But I worry when people on my side underestimate the difficulty of our most important work, and I believe that is what Senator Obama does when he dismisses our efforts to fight the right wing in an earlier period because it suggests to me that he does underestimate the difficulty of the job. I think the best way to summarize my concern is that if you tell people that we should not be willing to refight the battles of the nineties -- including many very important ones that we are far from having won -- and if you tell people to refuse partisanship, you may be inviting people to leave the battlefield to those with whom we have the biggest differences. Racial fairness, reproductive rights for women, an end to discrimination against sexual minorities, universal health care, the right of working men and women to bargain collectively with employers -- these battles we waged in the nineties remain essential to our vision today, and I do not understand why we should either be embarrassed about having fought hard for them, ten, fifteen or twenty years ago, or why we should not be determined to keep fighting until we have achieved success.