The decision of Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts to retire next year after 32 years in the House is a blow to the Democratic Party, to the cause of liberal politics and to the effort bring public responsibility to Wall Street. It's also a setback to candor, wit and the fading belief on Capitol Hill that sharp ideological and policy differences can be overcome by compromise.

Mr. Frank's strength has been not only his acid tongue and in-your-face style, but also his long-held conviction that Ronald Reagan was wrong in his famous dictum that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Other Democrats may have run away from the basic New Deal premise that government must be an engine of change on behalf of the American people, including those most in need. Barney Frank has never been among them.


So it's regrettable that, at a time his party and President Obama are in a death struggle with a Republican Party that more than ever believes Reagan was right, Mr. Frank and other Democratic congressmen are throwing in the sponge. Nine of them in all have announced their retirement as the party is fighting an uphill battle to regain control of the House next year and to hold onto its slim majority in the Senate.

Some of the prospective retirees, including Mr. Frank, were facing serious re-election challenges; Mr. Frank had to consider his chances in dealing with an unfavorable redistricting. In his announcement, he noted that his district has been "substantially changed" and he would have to introduce himself to many new constituents. At 71, but still vigorous, Mr.  Frank said "it would have been tough campaign" and he "would have a hard time justifying to myself to do it."

Beyond the loss of the acerbic but effective Barney Frank, the unspoken message sent by the other Democratic retirements is the expectation, or at least fear, that the Republicans will strengthen their hold on the House and take the Senate. Minority status has been a hard pill for House Democrats to swallow over the last nearly two years, and many could face more of the same in 2013, in both houses.

But the retirements, even if some of the seats in question are retained by the Democrats, are not an encouraging signal for President Obama as he struggles against the calculated Republican obstructionism that has stymied most of his economic recovery efforts. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to talk optimistically about regaining her old leadership post, but the dropouts cast a cloud over her words.

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the 2012 presidential election will be waged as much over basic party ideology on the role of government as over the personalities of the likely contenders. As President Obama diligently argues that the federal government is obligated to protect Americans hurt most by the flagging economy, the Republicans counter with demands that government become smaller and less costly.

The obvious battleground is entitlements, as Democrats fight against Republican encroachments on the social safety net that includes not only taxpayer-paid Medicare and Medicaid but also jobless benefits and the contributory Social Security system. More than ever, the cry of class warfare is heard, as the Democrats cast themselves as protectors of the middle class and demand an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans on which the Republicans refuse to budge.

No one prominent in today's politics has cast the central argument between the two major parties more in terms of class warfare than Newt Gingrich, now surprisingly emerging as the principal challenger to Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination.

The Democratic National Committee has chosen prematurely to run television ads against Mr. Romney, apparently assuming he is the greater threat to President Obama's re-election. A wiser strategy would have been to let the two GOP frontrunners to slug it out. There will be time enough after the voters decide the outcome for the Democrats and President Obama to make their case for government as the solution, not the problem.

Jules Witcover is a former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.