Why is Barney Frank breaking the rules?

If you want a major appointment like interim senator, you're never supposed to admit it

Topics: Opening Shot, Barney Frank, Deval Patrick, John Kerry, Editor's Picks,

Barney Frank is breaking the rule of politics that says if you want a major appointment, you should never, ever talk about it publicly.

The longtime Massachusetts congressman, whose 32-year run in the House ended last week, declared on national television last Friday that he wants his state’s governor, Deval Patrick, to appoint him as an interim senator when John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state. And Frank has now followed up that announcement with a series of high-profile interviews.

His pitch is sensible enough. Because the fiscal cliff deal simply deferred the debate over cuts to the social safety net and left in place several deadlines that Republicans are now claiming give them leverage, the interim senator from Massachusetts – who would serve until a special election late this spring – would be thrust into an unusually consequential debate.

“I do think, immodestly, that given the important decision that will be made about these complicated questions, in February, March and April, I’m very well-qualified,” Frank told Politico in his latest interview, “because I don’t know of anybody else who’s been doing these things so continuously who’s ready to jump in.”

And he also acted swiftly this week to remove a potential stumbling block from his path. Before launching his appointment campaign, Frank had lashed out against Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination as defense secretary, blasting the Nebraskan for anti-gay comments he made in 1998. But when President Obama officially selected Hagel on Monday, Frank somewhat awkwardly fell into line. The political necessity of this step was obvious: Patrick is close to Obama and the White House – would he really send to Washington an interim senator who in one of his few major acts would side against the president?

But if the case for his appointment is solid enough, Frank’s unusual method of pursuing it seems at least questionable.

After all, there are a few reasons why it’s customary for appointment-seekers to keep quiet. One has to do with image-protection. How will you look if you publicly campaign for a position only to be snubbed for it? If you never admit to being interested, at least you can always claim you never really wanted the job. This is apparently of no great concern to Frank, though.

The other obvious reason for staying quiet is strategic: Most people making decisions on appointments probably don’t appreciate a public pressure campaign. This is the risk to what Frank is doing. Because he has a national reputation, he’s created a real stir with his lobbying. To the state and national press, the story is no longer Who will Patrick appoint? Now it’s just Will Barney Frank go to the Senate?  Who knows if Patrick resents the process being hijacked like this? But it’s a chance that most would-be appointees would never take.

So why does Frank feel compelled to take it? It’s possible that this is just a reflection of his nature. Tact has not always been his strong suit. More likely, though, this is a rational calculation, and Frank has concluded that his odds are maximized by making clear to the press and his political allies that he wants the job – that he can generate enough pressure to essentially leave Patrick with no choice. In addition to the ample press coverage he’s received in the last week, Frank now has won an endorsement from the Boston Globe. The more influential voices who vouch for him, the tougher it will be for Patrick to say no.

That’s the theory, at least. It’s worth noting, however, that one of Patrick’s top political aides reacted to his announcement last Friday by saying there were “better options” for the appointment. That aide, Doug Rubin, later insisted that he was speaking only for himself, but also told the Globe that “if we get beyond the traditional names, there are a lot of smart, talented individuals from Massachusetts who could bring some fresh ideas and energy to Washington.”

This raises another possibility: that Frank concluded Patrick was intent on going in a different direction with the appointment and felt he had no choice but to go public. This would call to mind the recent drama in Hawaii, where the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s dying request that Rep. Colleen Hannabusa be appointed to replace him was made public. It turned out that there had been long-standing friction between Inouye and Gov. Neil Abercrombie – enough that Inouye evidently felt he’d only get his way through a posthumous public pressure campaign. As it was, Abercrombie ignored the request and installed his own ally in Inouye’s seat.

There’s no similar history of bad blood between Frank and Patrick. Frank, in fact, was an early backer of Patrick’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2006, although he was also very vocal in criticizing the congressional redistricting map that Patrick signed in 2011 – a map that played a role in convincing Frank to retire from the House. Whatever his exact rationale, if Frank’s ploy succeeds, his road to the Senate will have been a particularly unconventional one.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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