Retiring Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank hasn't snarked his last (he's still in office for another year after all) but we're already starting to miss him. He's a rarity in the Democratic party -- a smart and capable policymaker who, to borrow some terminology from the other side, defiantly sticks to his guns.
Sure there are other good folks representing the Bay State (Nikki Tsongas comes to mind) but with Frank there is such a distinct and particular forcefulness -- he displays none of the timidity that's plagued Democrats for years. Can he be an ideologue and a bit of a bully? Sure, but certainly not more so than any of the fire-and-brimstone folks on the right who are often dismayingly successful. Frank is nothing if not an effective communicator of his ideals, whether he's leading the charge on equal rights or trying to enact important financial regulation. That's not to say that he was the lone wolf in all of his campaigns, or that he's always followed through successfully, but as the poster boy for Democratic tenacity, he was unrivaled. Just imagine if there were twenty more Democrats with the same pluck as Barney Frank. It's tough to say more would get done, but at least we'd be entertained?
Merely perusing a greatest hits list of Frank's more caustic moments paints a pretty good picture of just what a wryly funny showman he can be. Whether he's refusing to back down in the face of bellowing Bill O'Reilly, comparing an angry town hall attendee's debating skills to those of a dining room table, or mocking Newt Gingrich's presidential prospects (and multiple divorces), Frank is the lovably irascible scourge, the guy you want at your dinner party but are also a little afraid of, as he might dress you down next. Frank also always seems to be having fun himself, seemingly engaged in and energized by the moment, rather than simply droning through the motions like so many political figures, especially those on the institutional left. While the right has their ringmasters like Roger Ailes and their sideshow freaks like Glenn Beck to rouse the rabble, the liberal establishment has precious few showmen. Frank has consistently been one of them. But unlike Ailes or Beck or even Sarah Palin, Frank is not only an arch entertainer, he's also an effective legislator. A true rarity.
Though born and raised in northern New Jersey, there is something determinedly Massachusetts about Frank's professional style, especially his humor. As with other blue blusterers from the Bay State before him, people like Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy, Frank is possessed of both a rhetorical fire and a sharp, sometimes mordant wit. Frank is, if nothing else, a true political personality, someone who has actually used his flair for the dramatic to successfully champion many pieces of important legislation. He also, on the turn of the coin, has a hard-boned and clever pragmatism to him that, to generalize an entire state, seems awfully endemic to Massachusetts. Frank's departure from Congress will leave a Massachusetts-shaped hole in the Democratic party. Obviously Frank's legacy may be a bit tainted by his role as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee during the meltdown of the Western world's economy -- and there is the Dodd-Frank Consumer Protection Act, a noble undertaking that was hobbled by lobbyists and special interests -- but he did, if nothing else, provide a clear, distinct, and most importantly loud voice for a group of politicians who are often seen as meek or weak-willed. We like to think that speaks credit to the state he represents.
Waiting in the wings is another Massachusetts transplant (from Oklahoma no less), Elizabeth Warren, who has begun a galvanizing Senate campaign and could be a new kind of truth-to-power Washington firebrand. She's got moxie too. But really, Frank leaves almost impossibly big, noisy shoes to fill. So we may be sadly forced to resign ourselves to the fact that Frank was (is!) one of a kind. We'll leave it to the economists and political historians to measure the overall successes and failures of his particular legislative efforts, but as someone who represented his state and his party oftentimes as well as one can, we're happy to salute him already.