Why Is Barney Frank Pretending to Be Nice?

What does it say about the Democrats’ chances next month that Rep. Barney Frank has to pretend to be nice?

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What does it say about the Democrats’ chances next month that Rep. Barney Frank has to pretend to be nice?

Frank’s not nice, and I’d venture he’d be insulted if someone described him as nice. The Newton, Mass., Democrat is regarded by colleagues in both parties as one of the smartest people in Congress and surely one of the wittiest. He does not suffer fools, and--like that professor you alternately feared and respected in college--has little tolerance for those who come unprepared to a hearing or to an interview. Capitol Hill reporters learn quickly to do their homework on an issue before questioning Frank about it; he’s happy to provide his direct, detailed opinion on matters ranging from financial reform to the plight of renters whose landlords were about to lose their property because of bad mortgages. But he’s not willing to do remedial instruction; he expects everyone he works with in government and interacts with in the media to know what they’re talking about, even if they disagree. “You’re entitled to your own opinion,” Frank is fond of saying. “You’re not entitled to your own facts.” In a House chamber where such social-lubricant lies as “my good friend from Florida,” or “the distinguished gentlelady from Ohio” are thrown around in between nasty political attacks, Frank’s bluntness and irascibility are both jarring and refreshing. Frank isn’t trying to be your best friend. He wants to be your congressman.

[See where Frank gets his campaign money.]

Now, the 15-term congressman has been reduced to running the sort of TV campaign ad usually associated with a candidate who has no record on which to rely. In one of those touchy-feely spots, Frank is reintroducing himself as a nice guy, someone who had to interrupt his own education to help his family when his father, a high school dropout, died. Frank’s campaign Web site encourages constituents to engage in interactive Internet conversations. “So if there’s any of these issues where you’d like to respond, or even have me respond to your response, please feel free to do so,” Frank says on the site.

What has happened to the man whose early campaign poked fun at his own rumpledness, noting “Neatness isn’t Everything?” Where’s the man who refused to appease a raving attendee at a 2009 town hall meeting? When the woman asked Frank how he could support President Obama’s “Nazi policy,” Frank shot back. “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” He concluded--accurately--that “trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table."

Frank recently had President Clinton in his district to campaign with him, and has campaigned aggressively in both the primary and general elections. Frank-haters (and there are many, though the most vitriolic opposition comes from well outside Frank’s district) hope this means the congressman is worried about losing his re-election. That’s a misinterpretation; Frank is just refusing to make the mistake made by, for example, failed Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley. He’s not taking anyone’s vote for granted this year, and that’s smart. Smart, in Congress, is far more important than nice.

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