July 24, 2003
I doubt Barney Frank is worried about Chuck Morse, the Brookline resident who wants to replace him in Congress next year. The conservative wannabe congressman won't unseat the quintessential liberal Democrat, but the battle, if it amounts to one, could be fun for all.
No one I've asked has ever heard of Morse, who hosted a radio talk show for several years (first on the Internet and then at WROL) and writes commentaries for conservative media. Then again, we don't hang out in the same circles. For all I know he's got a huge base of fans just waiting for someone like him to finally show Frank what's what.
More likely, though, Morse will do no better than Frank's past challengers. In liberal Brookline and Newton, most voters appreciate their congressman's articulate smarts and openly gay Jewish identity at least as much as they like his politics. Elsewhere in the large, bizarrely shaped district, in places like Fall River and New Bedford where being a gay Jewish liberal elicits less admiration, Frank's ability to bring home Washington goodies dampens the urge to replace him.
On his campaign website, Morse calls himself the Taxpayers Candidate and outlines views ranging from moderately to very conservative. With years of punditry behind him, it's easy to discover what he thinks about small government, God-given rights, and family values; school vouchers, a flat tax, and traditional marriage; ending abortion, privatizing Social Security, and President Bush's "adroit leadership [in] defending the Nation and liberating others from oppression." And much more.
Some of Morse's positions may even appeal to Frank's supporters. He supports Israeli policy more absolutely than Frank does. He's more a local-government, state-rights kind of guy than a die-hard corporate-money Republican. He criticizes the USA PATRIOT Act for infringing on individual rights. He would continue the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in service rather than return to an absolute ban. He backs alternative fuel development and some environmental laws.
Still, Morse's overall approach veers sharply right. His talk show shtick was to bring on liberal and radical guests for extended discussion. Then he'd move from polite conversation to confrontation and often to nastiness, trying to expose what he considered their lies and inconsistencies. His victims included Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Alan Dershowitz, and Robert Reich. And, coincidentally, Barney Frank.
And even me. Morse emailed me three years ago after one of my TAB columns set him off. A series of hostile communications led to my appearing on his radio show twice, first to discuss topics related to my academic and political interests, then my effort to foster a somewhere-in-the-middle position on Israel and Palestine.
Both visits were frustrating. Morse thrives on baiting his targets, all of whom he lumps together as liberals, socialists, and authoritarians, as if these were identical. I objected to his simplistic categories but knew I'd never persuade him. He resists the notion that both sides of the political spectrum incorporate a variety of conflicting positions, with adherents ranging from thoughtful to superficial. He'd rather dismiss all leftists -- every last one of them -- simply as deceitful, power hungry opportunists.
On the other hand, Morse deserves credit for giving people like Chomsky and Zinn more extensive airtime than the supposedly liberal media provide. The few times I listened, it seemed to me his guests managed to make their case despite Morse's rhetorical flourishes.
After my second guest slot, though, I decided not to pursue his offer to consider me for a regular gig as "resident authoritarian leftist." It's not much fun getting insulted by someone who regularly uses his last word to throw one more audience-pleasing zinger.
If Morse manages his race for Congress the same way he taunts his guests, Barney Frank's victory will be bigger than ever. But with expectations for anyone beating Frank low enough to elicit giggles, the challenger will probably emerge respectably enough to get another talk show. That's not a bad outcome. If the only way Chomsky and Zinn can get a decent hearing is to have Chuck Morse try to trip them up, I'll be happy enough when he returns to the air.