Tuesday night marked the end of what was likely the final full day of campaigning in Barney Frank’s long political career. The former congressman and liberal icon unexpectedly inserted himself several weeks ago into the race to fill a four-month interim Senate appointment – a race that has only one declared candidate (Frank himself) and that will be decided by only one voter, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
With the Senate confirming John Kerry as Secretary of State late Tuesday, Patrick is set to announce his pick in Boston today, with the appointee serving through the June 25 special election, which will fill the remaining 18 months of Kerry’s term. Because of his national reputation, Frank’s quest for the appointment has attracted considerable attention, and his central argument seems reasonable enough: Frank is legislatively savvy and has long been a champion of an expansive social safety net; with rollbacks to Medicare and Social Security potentially on the table in the coming months, Democrats could do worse than to have his experience and voice in the Senate.
But, as veteran Boston Globe political reporter Frank Phillips noted on Tuesday, barring a complete surprise, Frank isn’t going to get his way on this one. Here are the five main reasons why:
1. He tried to corner Patrick. It wasn’t just that Frank publicly stated his interest in the appointment. He launched a full-scale pressure campaign, doing interview after interview and enlisting national liberal leaders and opinion-shaping liberal voices to plead his case – publicly and privately – to the governor. This is not how Patrick, or any governor, wants high-profile appointments handled. He had his own list of prospective candidates, his own preferred process and timeline, but Frank completely hijacked it. And with his national reputation, he’s put Patrick in a bad spot: If he goes with Frank, he looks like he was pressured into doing so; if he doesn’t, the main story in the national press will be, “Why didn’t he pick Frank” – instead of “Why Patrick did pick X.” It’s doubtful Frank did himself any favors with his aggressive pursuit of the appointment; although if he concluded early that he wasn’t on Patrick’s short-list and was unlikely to receive serious consideration, he may have reasonably concluded that a pressure campaign was his only option – even if it was a longshot.
2. Patrick was already pressured once... This is not the first interim Senate appointment Patrick has been called on to make. When Ted Kennedy passed away in 2009, he was also tasked with choosing a placeholder. There was talk that he might tap former Governor Michael Dukakis, a Patrick friend and ally, but the Kennedy family made its preference for Paul Kirk, a former DNC chairman and longtime Ted Kennedy confidante, known and the governor felt obliged to honor the wish.
3. …so he’s determined to out his own stamp on this one: It’s not that Patrick regrets the Kirk appointment or that Kirk made any mistakes during his interim stint; his main job in Washington was to vote for healthcare reform, which he did in December 2009 (although the final version didn’t pass until March 2010, after Scott Brown won a special election to replace Kirk). But Patrick is in a different place now than he was three years ago. In late ’09, his poll numbers were wobbly and his reelection prospect were iffy. But he was reelected by an unexpectedly comfortable margin in 2010 and now he’s well into his second term. He took a non-traditional, grassroots-oriented path to power in the Bay State in 2006 and has an opportunity with this appointment to make statement about his own vision of politics – one that doesn’t automatically look to the existing power structure to fill meaningful vacancies.
4. The Frank rationale is losing its steam: When Frank threw his hat in the ring, a dramatic debt ceiling showdown seemed imminent, with Republicans again threatening to force a default unless President Obama and Democrats gave serious ground on safety net programs. This was in the immediate wake of the fiscal cliff deal, which left the entitlement and debt ceiling issues unresolved – and which left some on the left wondering if Obama might blink in the face of the forthcoming Republican brinkmanship. But since then, Obama’s fiscal cliff strategy has been validated, at least partly. The GOP actually agreed to suspend the debt ceiling through May, only on the condition that the Democrats in the Senate produce a budget, and Obama didn’t even mention the “grand bargain” concept in his inaugural address. Now leading Republicans, like Paul Ryan, are suggesting that the sequester -- $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over ten years which are less harmful to Democratic priorities than to Republican priorities – may simply go into effect instead. The “grand bargain” game could still be revived this spring, and with it the questions about how what safety net cuts Obama would actually agree to, but for now the rationale for Frank’s presence in the Senate isn’t as compelling as it was a few weeks ago.
5. There’s really no political price for Patrick in saying no: Sure, if you polled liberal activists in and out of Massachusetts, Frank would be their top choice for the appointment, and they’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get it. And Patrick, who has already announced that he won’t seek reelection in 2014, may end up pursuing national office someday. But we’re talking about a four-month appointment here. Snubbing Barney Frank and installing an equally reliable liberal senator, perhaps one with an unconventional and even inspiring life story, will hardly matter to activists a year or two from now. It probably won’t even matter to them a few months from now. They’ll be disappointed that Frank wasn’t picked, but they won’t be furious, they won’t hold a grudge, and that will be that.
I could be totally, embarrassingly wrong here. I have been before. And we are ultimate talking about the psychology of one man here; so who knows – maybe Patrick will suddenly wake up this morning in a mood to say yes to Barney Frank. But my best instincts tell me that Frank’s push is going to come up short today, and that someone else will be joining Elizabeth Warren in the Senate for the next four months.