Bush's First 100 Days: Barney Frank

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has served in the House since 1980.

Thursday, March 8, 2001

What did you make of the so-called charm offensive, this sort of personality-driven approach?

Well, it was very intelligent. The way was set for him by the media, frankly. The media, increasingly, overdoes the story. The media set the stage for the charm offensive by, in December, arguing that there was going to be chaos, that the bitterness had gotten out of control.

Now it was obvious that it wasn't, but particularly in the vacuum that occurred in public policy in December when nothing is happening governmentally, the media had people ready to think that we were going to have armed bands clashing near the Capitol.

So when none of that happened, the president was a great beneficiary, and just as people overwrote and overtalked about the chaos that was coming, you know, they overwrote and overtalked the charm offensive.

People always like a new president. Remember Jimmy Carter walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, et cetera? I mean, Gerald Ford making his own English muffin. These things are very ephemeral, they fill the vacuum of no public policy, and they have zero impact, either on public policy or on the next election.

So, yes, given the limited effect they had, the president did them reasonably well, but they're very ephemeral.

The reaching out to the Black Caucus, having them up again, perhaps a gesture better made than unmade, but, still, a pretty chilly reaction from the Caucus members afterwards.

Well, we're adults who don't live by gestures. Yes, it's important for people to be pleasant to each other, but I would hope people wouldn't want us governing by gestures. Do people really think we should be changing our positions on deeply-held public policy positions because of slam [ph] or handshake? And by the way, remember, that on the president's part, it has almost all been unilateral.

That is, what he has said is I will be nice to you. Will you support my program. And I think we're perfectly prepared to say, well, I tell you what — we'll even be nicer to you if you support our program, with the exception of vouchers, where the president has accepted defeat, in effect.

The charm offensive consists of his saying that he would be happy if we supported his program. Frankly, we knew that. So, yes, it is useful not to have people snarling at each other, but it's really substantially irrelevant to the public policy process.

Reporters, critics, Democrats, pointing to this conclave outside of Pittsburgh as, as showing both the benefits and the limitations of this kind personal — personality-driven approach. You had Nancy Pelosi really pressing him on the Mexico City policy and getting less than clear answers on that. What was, what was your take on that?

Precisely that the president is much more comfortable in the personal relationships than in answering the questions. He was uncomfortable answering the questions. The questions weren't obscure, and they frankly confirmed the view of several of us, namely that he's — it's not just that he's not well-prepared. He's not a man who is given to a lot of thought about these issues.

Where he's had a chance to really prepare, taxes and education, he's able to talk, but even there his answers were, "Well, this is what I ran on." So, frankly, it was not an impressive performance in, in that sense.

But, again, I want to stress — this has very little to do with public policy. Again, you know, we are adults who have been doing this for a long time, and we have been charming each other, and we're pretty much immune to each other's charm in terms of it influencing, you know, where we are in, in public policy.

I mean, Lyndon Johnson had this quote, in which he said if you can't go out with their women and drink their liquor, and eat their food, and take their money, and still vote against them, you don't belong in this business.

Now I would not want to ascribe to the president all those things, that's not what he's offering, but it — people have vastly exaggerated the personal aspect of this, and they've exaggerated it probably 'cause nothing else was happening.

Now that we have gotten into public policy, I think you're going to see a lot less of this personality business.

Faith-Based Initiative

The faith-based organization proposal, clearly near and dear to the president's heart, but even in the first third of the 100 days, trouble coming from both the right and the left.

Yeah, because it's not logical. I mean, if the policy position is that you should not discriminate against religious organizations but allow them to participate just as any other, then it makes sense and it's not particularly new.

What's new is somewhat controversial, because either you give them government money to inculcate religion — and look, some of these people are saying if you let me make people be more religious than they otherwise were, that will have good effects on their personality, well, that's a — that's — the Constitution protects your freedom to do that.

But the Constitution also protects people's freedom from having it done to them, and the notion that you would give public money, and then say to people you can get this service only if you're prepared to subscribe to this Jewish or Baptist or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, or Scientology screed, that's just wrong.

And then of course if you go the other way, and say, well, wait a minute, okay, we won't let them do the religion, then the religious institutions say well, wait a minute, we're not out here, you know, hiring ourselves out to the highest bidder with no content. So I think that one's very poorly thought out.

Again — and again, though, which [is] an interesting reversal of Reagan. The Reagan position had been, the conservative position had been Government takes care of the basics. It cleans the streets and provides police. Beyond that, it's up to private charity.

The philosophy of the Reagan people was, yes, there should be help but it should be private charity.

What Bush is now saying is, well, you know, private charity can't make it on its own. Private charity's important but the Government has to fund private charity.

I don't think that's been sufficiently dwelt upon, that what, what many of us are saying is look, you know, Government has to take on the responsibility of helping people. I mean, my, my shorthand is private charities can help you with the quality of life but they can't do the quantity of life.

They can't provide the basics. Bush, in effect, is admitting the inadequacy of private charity on their own resources, and is saying, okay, this has gotta be a Government program, can the Government in effect hire the private charities?

But then you get into this issue. If you hire the private religious charities, the big religious charities, you've got a constitutional problem. And, to me, by the way, the problem here is freedom of religion. I'm not as worried about the establishment of religion. I'm not as worried about some incidental benefit going to a religion.

What I'm saying is this. You should not have to get Government benefits by agreeing to particular religious practices. It's an impingement on the freedom of these people's religion, and, as I said, on the other hand, you have some of the religions saying, well, what do I need you for, just to give me money, if I'm not going to be able to practice my religion?

So I think that one is going to founder.

Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Congressman, there was an illusion at the beginning of this administration that maybe it, it would actually be the kinder, gentler Bush administration. That this was going to be a group of moderate Republicans. As we move into the, into the, the end of the second trimester, now, of the first 100 days, what do you think?

Well, the moderates, as of today, have taken an awful beating. I never, myself, felt that that was likely to happen. I think one of the things people have to understand with politicians is you should not confuse amiability with a lack of ideological fervor.

You can very pleasant zealots, you can have very grumpy moderates. We tend to think there is a correlation between being of a sunny disposition, and being of a, of a moderate ideology, and they're just totally uncorrelated. George Bush, President George Bush is a very amiable man who is uniformly pleasant company, it would appear to be, most of the time, but who is following a very, very right-wing course.

And the moderates, you know, as of now, Colin Powell, who's been repudiated, in a very embarrassing way on both Korea and Iraq; Christie Whitman was made to do a complete turnaround on the question of CO2 emissions.

John Dilulio, the guy at the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, has been getting sort of anonymously criticized in the White House.

It's a very, very conservative administration and I think, as I said, people confused someone being personally pleasant with someone being ideologically moderate, and they're just, they're just unrelated.

The Big Speech

As you looked at that, sort of a non State of the Union Address, that the president gave at what we'll call the beginning of the second trimester, was there anything in that address that sort a finalized that for you?

Well, actually, the address itself was kind of misleading. I would have really liked that speech, if I believed it. That is, if I thought what he was saying were things he really planned to do. The problem was he had already taken policy positions totally at variance with —

What did you — what did you like in the speech?

Well, I was particularly pleased with the racial profiling, that was a very strong stand, and to give George Bush credit, Republicans in the previous Congress were reluctant to embrace that as an issue. Racism continues to be the besetting problem of America in my view. The, the racism in our past, the scars that that's left, the, the — the damage it's gone, and for George Bush to speak out so unequivocally against racial profiling was admirable.

But as to the rest, there was just a great disconnect between everything he said he wanted to do and what he's in fact doing. I mean, you talk about leaving no child behind, et cetera, et cetera, and then you put in a budget that savages the poorest children in this country.

And yet, as you look at his budget, most of the money — not most — the money, that the largest increase goes to education.

It goes to education, it's true, but that does not offset, for instance, a serious cut in public housing. The poorest children in America live in public housing, and the public housing budget is cut severely. Police protection for kids in public housing goes down. Physical work in public housing goes down.

Monday, April 16, 2001

So we saw at the beginning of this period the announcement on the Kyoto Protocol and the move on the lawsuits about the endangered species list, continuing this trend of rollbacks on the environment. Do you think at this point it's starting to be a real problem for the administration in terms of perception?

Well, I think it goes beyond perception. I think it's becoming very clear as of now that this is as conservative an administration, as far over to the right as we've seen. And my own sense is that the current President Bush was sort of seared by the experience of his father having been so undermined by a right-wing revolt led by Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan. But on virtually every issue — the environment, any deals with organized labor, the budget — this is an administration that's about as far to the right as it can go within the current framework of American politics. And I do think that perception is now very clear....

Picking up on the theme that you talked to us about several times before, this notion of being captive to the right for whatever reason, do you believe they're really now running into problems with that and that they're going to be seen by voters as being captive to interests of the right and of business?

Yes, I think it's very clear that it's a very right-wing administration. I'm not sure I would call them captives. I don't see any signs that he's trying to break loose. I think if we tried to run a rescue operation, the captives would — would join the — the prison guards and fight against it.

You know, when George Bush ran, he ran very consciously as a more moderate candidate than he now is as the president. Indeed, we have Pat Robertson saying — I believe it was Pat Robertson — well, we gave him a pass. Now, frankly, as a liberal, I take some political comfort from that because, clearly, George Bush understood that the extreme degree of conservatism he's pursuing in so many areas — the rights of working people, the environment, some of the budget aspects — he understood that that wouldn't sell well. So he downplayed it, and now I think it's very clear to people that he is that conservative.

I must say, I've been a little bemused to read some journalists saying, Oh, you people were fooled, he's very conservative. In fact, many of us were saying that during the election period. In fact, I think the media collaborated to some extent with Pat Robertson in giving him a pass. It was clear that, you know, this is a man who's going to try to make it illegal for a woman to terminate a pregnancy. He's going to try to make it very difficult for people to use RU-486. He's undone, not just refused to go forward, but undone things that Bill Clinton did to protect people's rights as working people and the environment.

Budget

Take the actual budget for me. Is it the document that you expected back in February with all the outlines and what are the major problems that you see with it?

Yes, it is the budget that was dictated by Bush's tax cut. Remember, Bush talks about a number by which he wanted to cut taxes. That's what's driving this whole process. He first did the tax cut. Then you have, in terms of spending on important public needs, simply what's left over.

The biggest problem to me is in Medicare, health care. In the first place, I think we have a terrible crisis in this country for older people who need prescription drugs. You know, you make your plans, you retire on 30, 35 thousand dollars a year. You paid off the home. You think you're going to live pretty well. And then you get hit with a drug bill. Four or five hundreds dollars a month, six hundred dollars a month, is not an unusual drug bill.

George Bush says, because of the amount by which he wants to cut taxes during his entire Presidency, the first four years, he can only afford to propose to help people who make less than $17,000 a year. If you were trying to get by on 22, 24, 26 thousand dollars a year and you have a drug bill of four or five thousand dollars a year, George Bush gives you zero help. That money went to cut the estate tax for multi-millionaires. So if you happen to be old and sick and middle class, the Bush budget has nothing for you. If you are old, rich, and dead, this budget takes care of you very nicely.

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