Is Barney Frank worried?
“Not to be condescending, but let me give you a little tip,” he tells National Review Online outside a convention hall on Massachusetts’ south coast. “Never ask a candidate if he’s confident he’s going to win: because the answer will always be ‘yes.’”
Indeed, Frank is still the clear favorite in Massachusetts’s 4th congressional district. But even as he speaks, it has come out that he’s lent his campaign two hundred grand from his own pocket, and reporters are nagging him about a bizarre — and for a 30-year incumbent, wildly undisciplined — incident in which his boyfriend, Jim Ready, was caught on camera going paparazzo on Republican challenger Sean Bielat — snapping photos and hurling insults.
And although he won’t say it in so many words, Frank’s campaign has a look and feel of — if not desperation, than at least discomfort. Frank says that his internals have him up between 19 and 20 points but admits that the race has become nationalized, and he’s had to campaign harder than in previous years. He’s even running TV spots — something he last did in his 2004 semi-official campaign to succeed John Kerry had the latter become president — in the effort to fend off the pesky Beilat, a 35-year-old Marine veteran whose list of almae matres reads like the top college rankings from U.S. News and World Report.
And the tone at a Frank campaign rally in Newton later that night can be described as somewhere between manic and panic.
“I know, we think Barney’s tough and can handle himself, but sometimes he needs our help,” Massachusetts state legislator Peter Koutoujian tells a crowd of about a hundred gathered on the second floor of Union Pub & Grille in Newton Centre.
Newton is a town deep inside Fortress Frank, boasting solar-powered trash compactors on the sidewalks and a near six-to-one Democrat-to-Republican ratio. And yet before this friendly crowd, one plied with quesadillas and crudités and cheering loudly, Frank and a stream of local Democratic pols are full of foreboding.
“I think this is the most important off-year election that we’ve ever had,” Frank warns, saying that the “right wing” is “poised to take over the country.” Newton’s mayor says it is “absolutely critical to return Barney to the Congress at this time in our nation’s history.” Several speakers hammer how crucial it will be to turn out 2008 Democratic voters who may be feeling dejected.
And Koutoujian even calls Bielat a “formidable Republican opponent,” and “probably the best” Frank has ever faced.
Frank blames the inordinate attention on his district — a longitudinal, gerrymandered corridor stretches from Massachusetts’ south coast to the university towns west of Boston — to a now familiar source: the “flood of anonymous right-wing money” coming into the race from “outside groups.”
“Once I became chairman of the committee, I became kind of the focus of a lot of the conservative attack,” Frank says, “from Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh.”
“The guy running against me has made it clear that he’s not getting support because of him . . . but because people are angry with me. The Tea Party people don’t like me, because, frankly, I wouldn’t be intimidated.”
Frank won’t talk to reporters about his boyfriend’s heckling, calling it “not very important” and questioning why the media is focusing on the “etiquette” of “something as trivial as an argument between two adults” when his constituents are worried about “economics.”
Nor will Bielat use the incident to score easy points, telling NRO only that it “surprised” him that the video of the incident “reached such a large audience.”
“It was a brief interchange,” he says. “What I hope voters are listening to is my message.”
And what is that message? For the most part, Bielat seems to be hewing to the Scott Brown model. He calls himself “pragmatic” rather than conservative, and defends the tea-partiers but won’t label himself a Tea Party candidate. And though he supports traditional marriage and is about as pro-life as you can get away with in the commonwealth, he steers clear of social issues, focusing on government spending and the economy, and tapping into the sense among many here that the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda — and Obamacare in particular — are net losers for a state that already has an extensive social safety net. It’s a strategy that worked for Brown, who, keep in mind, fell barely short of carrying Frank’s district.
By contrast, Frank’s message is one of unapologetic liberalism. At that convention center on the south coast, Frank arrives to address a breakfast meeting of local chambers of commerce. He shuffles in, one cufflink undone, and makes his way through a speech on his local and national economic record with his trademark squint-and-mumble, before a crowd that is surprisingly friendly — or at least not hostile — considering the Democrats’ open war on their mother organization. (Frank later tells NRO that, unlike the case of the reform-hating “multinationals” that compose the U.S. Chamber, his relationship with the local branches in his district has always been cordial.)
Deadpan, Frank tells the crowd that Obama “downplayed” the extent of the economic crisis he inherited out of a desire to be “conciliatory” toward Republicans. He downplays the role the GSE policies he engineered played in the financial crisis, even as he admits that he never foresaw Fannie and Freddie’s impending doom. He volunteers that he has been a “consistent opponent” of free-trade agreements and advocates getting “much tougher” with China. He touches on his desire to cut defense spending by as much as $100 billion a year, saying that America’s military presence around the world “does more harm than good” and that “the era of the U.S. being military protector of the entire world . . . is over.” He touts the dubious “Cash for Clunkers” and first-time homebuyer subsidy programs he supported as “tax cuts,” and tells them he believes more “short-term stimulus” is necessary.
And perhaps most remarkable in a political season that is as hostile to pork as any in recent memory, Frank tells these businessmen he is “proud” of his earmarks — rattling off a series of local bridges and interchanges he secured congressional funding for and highlighting the more than half a million dollars he lined up for cranberry research.
Only on taxes does he take what might be construed as a nominally pro-market slant, guaranteeing that an onerous 1099 expensing requirement in Obamacare will be repealed in the lame-duck session — though leaving open the question of “how you offset it” — and suggesting that he would support an “accommodation” on capital-gains rates set to spike at the end of the year.
If Frank is showing voters the goody-bag of federal spending he’s delivered to his district, Bielat is showing them the bill. At a candidates’ forum at the Newtonville Senior Center, Frank drops in to attack Bielat for proposing to raise the retirement age for Social Security then promptly excuses himself, hovering in the back of the room for a few minutes, Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand, to listen to Bielat’s even, measured reply. Forget his years in the Marine Corps, uncommon valor is Bielat telling a room full of Massachusetts seniors that the only solution to inevitable Social Security insolvency is a combination of privatization, means-testing, and a higher retirement age.
The Rochester, N.Y., native, who now lives in Brookline with his wife and son, is clearly comfortable talking straight with voters. This is a state that valorizes elected officials more than others, whether it’s the group of working joes lauding the fact that “Bah-ney’s a 30-year veteran!” as they pose for shots with Frank outside the Union Bar & Grille or the one hostile senior in Newtonville who declares Bielat can’t know what he’s talking about on Social Security because he’s “never worked for the government” (the U.S.M.C., it seems, doesn’t count). And yet, for the most part, they seem receptive to Bielat’s outsider message, frequently applauding his answers to their questions.
When NRO asks if he ever thought the race would be this competitive, Bielat answers without hesitation: “Yes I did, or else I wouldn’t have done it.”
He disputes the methodology of Frank’s polling. His own internals have the race much closer, inside 10, and he expects more good news from third-party polling before the election. When NRO asks him about Frank’s decision to pony up $200K to his own campaign, Bielat smiles and admits “it made my day.”
“It’s a strong indicator of what we already knew. Clearly he’s seeing the same things we are,” he says.
Frank counters that, independent of the reality, the perception that the race is competitive puts him in a catch-22. “I get people saying to me, ‘If you don’t campaign, you’re arrogant, and if you do campaign, you’re desperate.’” He shrugs. “So it’s kind of like asking who do you like better, your mother or your father. There’s no right answer.”
But Bielat is convinced that he’s in it. He says his focus in the last ten days of the race will be “the same thing we’ve been doing since February: volunteers, volunteers, volunteers. Making phone calls. We’ve done 200,000 person-to-person phone calls. We’re identifying our voters and turning them out.”
“We really feel good about our momentum and the direction we’re heading.”
– Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.