Think back a little bit to 1981, when you arrived here in Washington. What did you imagine you were going to accomplish?
I was unsure that I was a long-timer here. I came here knowing that Massachusetts was going to lose a seat and that I was very likely to be the targeted one. In fact, I was. They mapped a district that everybody assumed I would lose, including me.
Did that shape what you wanted to do?
I had a kind of general liberal agenda. I also had in mind to try to do something about gay rights, as we then called it, because I’d been a leader on that in the [state] legislature. I was still closeted, but from the day I decided to run for office, I decided that I would, of course, still be closeted but that I would work very hard for gay rights. It would be totally dishonorable, being gay, not to do that.
What about Congress itself back then? You came in at a slightly strange time for a newly elected Democrat, at the beginning of the Reagan years.
But I came in somewhat sheltered, because my district adjoined Tip O’Neill’s district. I came in under the patronage of the speaker. I got to sit at the big-kids’ table. Tip put me on the committee that dealt with urban affairs and housing, then called the Banking committee. He’d arranged to have a Massachusetts member on every important committee: There was a Massachusetts member on Appropriations, on Ways and Means, on Energy and Commerce. The one substantive committee for us that had a vacancy was that one.
I had been in the state legislature for eight years. And legislating is very much a common thing—it’s not so different from one body to another. I mean, I can read Trollope about the nineteenth-century British Parliament and see similarities.
What are they?
In every other thing you do where there’s a formal relationship, one of two principles applies. Either there’s a hierarchy—there’s somebody who can hire and fire you and give you orders—or there’s no formal ongoing relationship, but you use money—I will sell you this car if you give me money, I will perform this operation if you give me money. Legislators have a formal set of responsibilities to work together, but there’s no hierarchy. There is nobody in the House that can give anybody else an order. The speaker’s more influential than a freshman member of the minority party, but nobody can order you to do anything. Every two years, the people in Massachusetts can fire me. But nobody I work with can fire me.
And, by the way, increasingly there’s much more autonomy from leadership. With the Internet and everything else, more of it’s on your own than not. So that puts a great priority on personal relationships—that’s how to be influential without being overly pushy.
You’re saying you’re not very pushy?
I’m a good legislator. I’m bad at some other things. On the other hand, I spent 1981 thinking for much of the time that this was only going to be a two-year deal.
Did that make you pushier at the time?
No. That’s what I would think about when I went to bed, but once the game started, you played the game. The bell rings, and you start swinging.
So it was at the start of your second term that you began to think of yourself as a long-term member?
After I won reelection in ’82, a guy I was friendly with, a Republican who’d been in the state legislature with me, said, “Well, this job is yours as long as you want it.” I said, “That’s right.”
People complain about the increased polarization and partisanship in Congress, and they attribute it, in part, to safe districts like yours.
Is there more polarization, in your judgment, in the House than there is in the Senate?
Okay, think about it—what did you just ask me? Literally, that just destroys the hypothesis. That just makes nonsense out of it.
The main reason for the increase in partisanship is Newt Gingrich and the success of his decision [as Speaker] to demonize the opposition as a way to win. That was reinforced by the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party. And finally, modern communications: Twenty years ago, people had a common set of facts that they read. They read opinion journalists, but they got their information generally from newspapers and from broadcasts. Now, the activists live in parallel universes, which are both separate and echo chambers for each. If you’re on the left, you listen to MSNBC, you go to the blogs, Huffington Post, et cetera, and you basically hear only what you agree with. If you’re on the right, you watch Fox News and the talk shows, and you hear only what you agree with. When we try to compromise, what you find is not people simply objecting to the specific terms of the compromise, but the activists object even to your trying to compromise, because they say, “Look, everybody I know agrees with us, so why are you giving in?”
It seems like you’re leaving in large part because of this dysfunctional atmosphere.
I’m 73 years old. I’ve been doing this since October of 1967, and I’ve seen too many people stay here beyond when they should. I don’t have the energy I used to have. I don’t like it anymore, I’m tired, and my nerves are frayed. And I dislike the negativism of the media. I think the media has gotten cynical and negative to a point where it’s unproductive.
Is that a recent development?
It’s been a progressive development, or a regressive development. And I include even Jon Stewart and Colbert in this. The negativism—it hurts liberals, it hurts Democrats. The more government is discredited, the harder it is to get things done. And the media, by constantly harping on the negative and ignoring anything positive, plays a very conservative role substantively.
But isn’t part of that just because the media is expected to be adversarial?
Who expects it to be adversarial? Where did you read that? Did you read that in the First Amendment? Where did you read that the media is expected to be adversarial? It should be skeptical, why adversarial? Adversarial means you’re the enemy. Seriously, where does that come from?
Okay, maybe “skeptical” is the better word.
But that’s a very different word. You reflect the attitude: adversarial. And there is nothing in any theory that I have ever seen that says when you report events that you’re supposed to think, I’m the adversary, so that means I want to defeat them, I want to undermine them, I want to discredit them. Why is that the media’s role? But you’ve accurately stated it, and I think it’s a great mistake.
Do you think I just showed my hand there?
No, I don’t think you showed your hand personally. I think you reflected the Weltschmerz.
But you know the old aphorism, “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” I think that’s more what I was trying to get at.
When have you comforted the afflicted? I don’t see that in the media. I don’t see reporting that comforts low-income people or the environment. I think it’s negative about everybody.
But that’s a different problem. It’s the problem of sensationalism: The bad news is the stuff that gets the headlines.
That’s because you choose to give it the headlines.
Does that affect the way members of Congress operate?
Sure. People are response mechanisms. People understand you’ll get more news for being negative than positive. It affects the way people act in hearings.
That’s true. You go to these hearings, and there’s always grandstanding.
That’s because you guys give play for it.
Did the grandstanding not used to be as bad?
Not nearly as bad. One thing is people in the media would ignore it. What happens is the people who do the grandstanding are very often the least influential people here. I think the public now has a much smaller chance of judging who’s an effective member of Congress and who isn’t because that grandstanding crap dominates the media.
You’re always referred to as an institutionalist, and it seems like it’s hard to be an institutionalist when the institution is as partisan and as polarized as it is now.
Yes. But I learned a lot from Lyndon Johnson. I’ve read two books in my life that I read as manuals, and one was Caro on Lyndon Johnson as minority leader.
How was that a manual?
It’s very simple. It showed the importance of focusing on those members, providing individual attention, establishing a relationship in which you gave them more than you got.
Whenever anybody, any Democrat who’s on the committee, asked me to do something, if at all possible I’d do it. I’d go to their districts, I’d show up at their fund-raisers, I had my picture taken with people who wanted to have their pictures taken with me, I’d support their amendments, I’d get little things for them. You are their servant, you are their constituent.
And what about Republicans?
When we took power, they moved very far to the right, and from the time I became chairman, in 2007, it became virtually impossible to work with them. In 2009, when we were doing the financial-reform bill, there were 71 members of the committee, 42 Democrats and 29 Republicans. The last thing I thought of every night when I went to sleep was the number 36. Thirty-six is one more than half of 71: I just had to keep 36 Democrats, always Democrats. Never once did I have a Republican in my four years as chairman who was critical to a majority.
So do you look across the aisle and still see people who share your faith in governance?
A few. But they are mostly so intimidated by the fear of losing a primary that they can’t do much. There are a couple of Republicans on the committee that I can work with because they’re sort of independent and tough-minded.
People ask me, “Why don’t you guys get together?” And I say, “Exactly how much would you expect me to cooperate with Michele Bachmann?” And they say, “Are you saying they’re all Michele Bachmann?” And my answer is no, they’re not all Michele Bachmann. Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann. So, no, there are maybe three Republicans I can work with, on a couple of issues, out of the thirtysomething on the committee.
And the ones who are afraid of being challenged in a primary, who have this view of government being important but don’t express it because they’re afraid, why do they stick around?
Ask them, I don’t know.
I don’t know, I’m not going to guess.
I’m not going to psychoanalyze these people. I won’t do it.
You would leave, I assume—
Look, this job certainly didn’t make any sense in terms of maximizing my income or minimizing my stress or maximizing the comfort of my life. I think it’s a wonderful job to have because I’m able to work to make fundamental changes in society and improve the quality of people’s lives and eliminate and diminish unfairness at various times. If I wasn’t able to do what I thought was important public policy, it would be a stupid job to have.
Olympia Snowe decided it wasn’t worth it. What do you think of her decision not to run for reelection for her Senate seat in Maine?
It was confirmation of the death grip the right wing has on the Republican Party. Olympia was obviously just facing this terrible dilemma where she, to stave off a primary challenge and be able to function within her party, had to move further and further to the right. But it was never far enough.
Did you find her a useful centrist to have in Washington?
Decreasingly. She was a key vote for us on financial reform, but there was a price for her support. The CBO told us that we were going to need $20 billion to pay for the bill. Chris Dodd and I agreed to assess the large financial institutions for that, but we needed two Republicans to get to 60 votes in the Senate. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Scott Brown told us that they wouldn’t vote for the bill unless we took that $20 billion assessment off the backs of the financial institutions and instead put it on the taxpayer. That was just crazy, but that’s what we did.
Between Olympia and a right-wing Republican, she was better. But I am pleased that she is retiring, because I think her successor will vote with the Democrats much more.
Without going down a laundry list of your favorite legislative accomplishments, but thinking a little more broadly—
I can’t do that, it sounds egotistical.
What do you think you got done? You came in with certain goals, and now you’re leaving.
LGBT rights are very important. I will take very substantial credit for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I’ve done a lot in housing, in preserving rental housing, in keeping rental housing going. I’ve been frustrated for years, but I now take some credit in the last few years for putting military-spending reductions on the table. I think I played an important role in blocking the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
What was your attitude during the impeachment fight? Was it a matter of a principle, or of “We have to stop them from impeaching this Democratic president”?
It was that it was an assault on democracy, and I care a lot about democracy.
Does it ever surprise you that there hasn’t been any kind of impeachment effort against Obama, given how—
No. First of all, that one blew up. Secondly, Obama hasn’t given them the ammunition Clinton did with Lewinsky.
I want to go back to books. In addition to Caro’s, you mentioned that there was one other book you read as a how-to manual. What was that?
It was a biography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., by Charles Hamilton. Adam Clayton Powell was not the first black member of the U.S. House, but he was the first self-respecting black member.
Powell got here in ’45, and he was told that he couldn’t use the swimming pool, the members’ swimming pool that was only for white people, he couldn’t eat in the House dining room, and he couldn’t get his hair cut. So he said “The hell I can’t,” and he did it. And Powell—my analogy was I was the first member of Congress voluntarily to come out, the second to come out: Gerry Studds was outed but courageously said that he was. So Gerry and I were sort of tied for being the first out members. And that was a line to walk, about how do you affirm your identity as a gay man without making too much of it. I had a partner at the time, and my view was, and I continue to believe this now—I’m about to get married to Jim—I don’t do anything just to make a point, but I don’t not do something so somebody else can make a point. It’s how to be self-respecting without being belligerent.
So are you going to get married while you’re still in office?
Yes, in July.
You say you’re not doing it just to make a point, but is there any—
There’s an unintended benefit. I want to get married. I do think, to be honest, if I was running for reelection, I might have tried to put the marriage off until after the election, because it just becomes a complication. But I did want to get married while I was still in office. I think it’s important that my colleagues interact with a married gay man.
Has the speed with which gay marriage is being accepted—
It’s pleasantly surprised me. I filed the first gay-rights bill in the history of Massachusetts in 1972. At any time in the past 40 years, if you had asked me to project the progress two or three years out, I would have been too pessimistic. It’s moving very rapidly. And I think within ten years, we’re going to have pretty close to full legal equality for gay and lesbian people in much of America. There still won’t be marriage rights, I believe, in many states, but there will be marriage rights in states that are at least half of the population, and there’ll be no federal restriction on recognizing that. It’s moved very quickly.
I read somewhere a few years ago that when you were done here, you planned to write a book on the gay-rights movement.
My career and the gay-rights movement are serendipitously coterminous, to use too many big words. I worked for the mayor of Boston in the late sixties, and my bailiwick was, among other things, liberal issue groups. There was no gay-rights activity in Boston at the time—none—and I guarantee you that because, as a closeted gay man, I was hoping to meet other gay people. It would have been a twofer for me. It didn’t happen. I went off to work in Washington for a year in 1971, and I came back to Massachusetts in 1972 and there was a gay-rights movement. Very few political movements in America have as clear-cut a starting line as the gay-rights movement with Stonewall. There were some very brave people before, but Stonewall really did crystallize it. I did not set out to be the crusader. But I realized that I could not honorably walk away from this.
Here’s what happened: In 1972, the gay-rights groups in Massachusetts jointly sent out a questionnaire to everybody running for the state legislature that year to ask, “Would you sponsor a gay-rights bill?” And I was the only one that said yes, so I became the gay-rights leader.
Kind of by accident.
I believe very strongly that people on the left are too prone to do things that are emotionally satisfying and not politically useful. I have a rule, and it’s true of Occupy, it’s true of the gay-rights movement: If you care deeply about a cause, and you are engaged in an activity on behalf of that cause that is great fun and makes you feel good and warm and enthusiastic, you’re probably not helping, because you’re out there with your friends, and political work is much tougher and harder. And I think it’s now clear that it is the disciplined political work that we’ve been able to do that’s won us victories. I am going to write about the history of the LGBT movement partly to make the point that, in America at least, this is the way you do progressive causes.
So if you look at something like Pride Weekend—
Pride Weekend was very important early on because people didn’t know who we were. The hiddenness was a problem. Today, pride has no political role. It’s a fun thing for people.
In 1972, when you started working on gay rights as a political issue and you were closeted at the time, it seems—
I was very scared. I remember standing up there to testify. What am I going to do if they ask me if I’m gay? I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to tell the truth.
Did anyone ever ask you?
I was 32 years old, I was unmarried, and I figured, well, people are going to think, Maybe he’s gay, but if he were gay, he wouldn’t do it. I just said, “Fuck it.” But I would not come out. I could not have a political career and be out. I didn’t have a district like Harvey Milk’s; I didn’t have a large gay constituency.
When did you start coming out, not publicly, but to people close to you?
Seventy-eight. I had a bad year in ’78. I opposed Mike Dukakis for renomination for governor, I picked a woman who was running to his left, treated it as a protest, then he lost to a right-wing guy, Ed King. I supported Ed Brooke, the [black] Republican senator, against Paul Tsongas because I thought race—I still think race has been the most important problem for us to deal with. I didn’t think I was going anywhere politically.
In 1978 I said, “I’ll serve two more terms in the [state] legislature. I’ll run for reelection in ’80, then I’ll retire.” So I went to law school, took the bar, and said, “Okay, I’ll retire, I’ll be a lawyer, I’ll be a gay-rights activist having been in the legislature for ten years. I’ll be fairly prominent.” So I started coming out in ’79, telling my siblings and gay friends, some of whom were not surprised.
Then I got this lightning bolt. The Pope decided to ban clergy from holding elected office and had told Father Robert Drinan he couldn’t run again. [Drinan served as a U.S. Congressman from 1971 to 1981.] I called my brother-in-law and said, “Hey, Jim, you know Father Drinan’s not running?” He said, “I heard that.” I said, “Well, that sound you just heard is of a closet door slamming.” Meaning I was now going back into the closet to run for Congress. I figured I’ll be out privately but I’ll be ambiguous publicly. I’ll be out to the gay community. And that was unsustainable.
How did you think you were going to be able to do that?
I didn’t think. This is how I got in trouble with that hustler. You know, we all have emotional and physical needs that have to get expressed, and being closeted publicly, either people were too out for me or I was too out for them. I was not able to find a successful private life, an emotional life, a romantic life, so I took to hustling. I didn’t realize at the time how crazy that was. And it’s not an accident that whole deal ended when I came out. Remember, I came out voluntarily.
Yeah, I know, in the “Globe.”
The crap with the hustler [became a scandal] more than two years later.
When you did come out, was it more of a personal than a political decision?
I’ll tell you what finally touched it off. When Gerry Studds was outed, that meant I couldn’t come out for a while—two in the whole country, and we have districts next to each other? He got reelected in ’84, and even in ’86 I figured it’s too soon. Then a member of Congress named Stewart McKinney died of aids, and a major debate ensued about whether he was or wasn’t gay. It was very distasteful. Stewart was a wonderful man, one of the last really liberal Republicans, and I said, “Geez, this is awful. If I get hit by a truck tomorrow, I don’t want there to be this big debate: Was he gay? Was he not gay?” So I decided that I was going to come out.
What was the most difficult conversation you had with a colleague about that? Or were they all pretty receptive?
They were all very receptive. I didn’t tell that many people.
You told O’Neill, right?
Yeah. Robert Bauman had written a book in which he outed me. He incorrectly referred to somebody as my boyfriend—he wasn’t; he was a close personal friend—but he referred to me as gay. The press didn’t pick it up, but I thought, I’d better tell Tip. So I went to Tip. We were sitting on the floor, it was a bad day, we were losing the vote on the Contras, and I sat next to him. I said, “Tip, I’ve got to tell you something. Bob Bauman is coming out with a book that says I’m gay.”
“Awww, Bahney, don’t listen to that shit. You know they say these things about people.” I said, “Well, Tip, the point is it’s true.” He said, “Oh, Bahney, I’m so sad.” That’s when he told me he thought I was going to be the first Jewish speaker. He acted as if it was the end. But he was wonderfully supportive.
The final part of the story was when he told Chris Matthews, “We better get ready to talk to the press. They tell me Bahney Frank is going to come out of the room.” Matthews said, “What?” Finally he figured out Tip meant “come out of the closet.”
What were the reactions of other people?
There was one guy in my district when I came out who was furious. He said I’d lied to him. I probably had. I’d said I was not gay. But people were wonderfully supportive, including some Republicans. Al Simpson called—we’d worked together on immigration. He said, “Hey, pal, I just have this terrible feeling I might have said an anti-gay joke sometime in your presence, I’m so sorry.”
I was at a grocery store, Roland’s market on Capitol Hill. Warren Rudman was in there, the former senator. I was in the back, and he actually yelled the length of the store, “I’m proud of you!”
You talked earlier about Steve Gobie, the prostitute you were with who claimed that you knew about an escort service he was running out of your apartment. Was there any point after he made those allegations when you thought you would have to resign?
Never resign. The reason is I knew that what Gobie had said was mostly untrue, and I wanted the House Ethics Committee to investigate it and show that it was untrue, which it did. But I was ready not to run again, if I thought it would cost the Democrats the seat. It was only after I had a poll taken that showed I could win that I decided to run again.
When you look at subsequent scandals—
I won’t compare myself to anybody else.
Not comparing yourself to anyone else, but with Anthony Weiner, for instance, part of his problem was he didn’t come clean at the beginning. Would your advice to politicians caught in one of these scandals be, “Get it out on the table”?
Let me see if I get this—not comparing yourself to somebody else, would you compare yourself to Anthony Weiner? What do you think the answer is to that? No. Don’t try to play games. I told you I’m not going to compare myself to anybody else. You can’t rephrase it and make me do it.
If John Kerry had been elected president in 2004, most people thought you’d run for his Senate seat and win. Do you have any regrets about not serving in the Senate?
Oh, it was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, because I wouldn’t have been able to do the financial-reform bill. Look, there are some things I’m very bad at, but this thing is one where my peculiar combination of strengths is very helpful, and my weaknesses are not relevant.
Um, I have a short attention span.
But it seems like someone with a short attention span would not be authoring Dodd-Frank.
But Dodd-Frank, there’s a lot of pieces of it. Yes, I had to do some studying, but I rarely had more than an hour to spend on any one thing, or two. I can get focused on really important things, but I can’t sit and ponder for a week about one topic.
Dodd-Frank gets kicked around a lot by both liberals and conservatives. Are you happy with the way it turned out?
Oh, absolutely. The conservative critics are just right-wingers who don’t want any regulation. And if you listen to the liberals, much of the criticism is uninformed, and I believe among the people who know what we’ve done there’s great support.
No legislation can be perfect, but is there an ideal version of the bill that exists in your head?
The biggest thing I would have changed was how you paid for it—that $20 billion that’s now on the taxpayers, not the banks. But we needed those Republican votes. I would also have toughened up the derivatives stuff a little bit. If I could just wave a magic wand, I would have merged the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. But there’s just never any chance of doing that, because they represent the farmers versus the financial markets.
Looking back to Freddie and Fannie, in 2003 you famously said that they were “not facing any kind of financial crisis.” Do you accept the criticism that you were wrong about them?
No! Yes, I was wrong in 2003, but I wasn’t in charge. This is the most intellectually dishonest argument from Republicans. Remember, I was in the minority from 1995 to 2006. They were in charge. Their argument appears to be that I stopped Tom Delay from doing something. But this is all on their watch. Now, in 2005, I tried to work with Mike Oxley to get some reform. It became an internal Republican fight. Oxley said the problem was that George Bush gave him the one-finger salute, and that’s what killed it.
I became chairman of the committee in 2007. The first thing we did was pass tough legislation restricting Fannie and Freddie. It’s as a result of that legislation that they were put into a conservatorship and haven’t lost any money [on new business] since 2008. Now, the Republicans have been in power in the House since January of 2011. They have not even moved a bill to a full committee decision. They talk about Fannie and Freddie when they’re out of power. When they’re in power, they do nothing.
But whether or not your opinion was consequential in 2003, did you learn anything from being wrong?
Here’s the deal. The lesson we learned—and not just from Fannie and Freddie—was about what economists call “tail risk”: the idea that something terrible can happen that’s very unlikely. My mistake was not to see that this could happen. Just because you think something is highly unlikely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t deal with it. All right?
To what extent do you think government should incentivize behavior?
It depends on the behavior. One, it should ban behavior that’s destructive toward other people. Beyond that, if there are things that people can do that have great benefit beyond themselves and have some cost, I think you should incentivize them to do that. Not compel them, but help them economically to do it. But if it’s behavior that’s seen as self-destructive individually, then I think the government should stay the hell out of it. I don’t think we should ban smoking, drinking, marijuana, gambling, any of those things.
But in terms of homeownership, that was an instance where you had the government incentivizing—
I think that was a mistake. I think decent living conditions is important. But not ownership as opposed to rental.
You’ve been fighting a lonely fight supporting rental housing. Given what’s happened in the last few years, have you seen it become more attractive?
It’s become much more common now.
What is it about home ownership? It seems that people on both sides of the aisle—
One, it was seen as a way to get wealth. Of course, it turned out the other way. I think it’s just very American, you know. It’s not big in France. It’s this old frontier kind of individualist, everybody needs a home.
But that’s a pretty powerful strain in American life.
And it led to problems. It’s now, however, done so much harm that it’s receding.
You mentioned earlier that you thought race is our most important problem, but in 2008 you supported Hillary, right?
Was that a difficult decision—
You didn’t see Obama’s candidacy as important in terms of the racial—
Well, first of all, the Clintons were wonderful on the race issue. I guess I would say women are not as important as race. I’m very proud of my record for being very supportive on race; I’m going to get the Hubert Humphrey award this year from the Civil Rights Leadership Conference. It will mean as much to me as anything that’s ever happened.
But I worried about Obama and have been somewhat vindicated by his presidency. I think he underestimated the virulence of the right wing and overestimated his ability to govern in a post-partisan manner. I said that gave me post-partisan depression. But I was never virulently against him, and I was an easy convert to him. I was never a bitter ender.
So partisanship is the problem, but post-partisanship is not the solution?
Partisanship is not the problem; excessive partisanship is. You can’t have a democracy without partisanship.
How do you tamp down the excessive partisanship and just get it back to partisanship?
I can’t do that. Only Republicans can. Well, the electorate can. You defeat the people who caused the excessive partisanship. Namely the tea party and the right wing.
Is that something you foresee happening?
I don’t know. I don’t make predictions.
You do, though. I read a prediction you made not long after Obama was elected about how 2010 would be a good year for the Democrats.
I underestimated the depths of the recession. The mortgage crisis was worsened because critical decisions were made during the transition between Bush and Obama. TARP was basically being administered by Hank Paulson as the last man home in a lame-duck presidency. I tried to get them to use the TARP to put some leverage on the banks to do more about mortgages, and Paulson at first resisted—he just wanted to get the money out. And after he got the first chunk of money out, he said, “All right, I’ll tell you what, I’ll ask for a second chunk, and I’ll use some of that as leverage on mortgages, but I’m not going to do that unless Obama asks for it.” This is now December, so we tried to get the Obama people to ask him, and they wouldn’t do it. During the critical period when the TARP was being administered, there was a vacuum of political leadership. At one point, Obama said, “Well, we only have one president at a time.” I said I was afraid that overstated the number of presidents. We had no president.
Then Obama made the same mistake Clinton made. When you try to extend health care to people who don’t have it, people who have it and are on the whole satisfied with it get nervous.
You think Obama overinterpreted his mandate with health care?
The problem with health care is this: Health care is enormously important to people. When you tell them that you’re going to extend health care to people who don’t now have it, they don’t see how you can do that without hurting them. So I think he underestimated, as did Clinton, the sensitivity of people to what they see as an effort to make them share the health care with poor people.
I think we paid a terrible price for health care. I would not have pushed it as hard. As a matter of fact, after Scott Brown won, I suggested going back. I would have started with financial reform but certainly not health care.
And if you’d done it with that sequencing, you could have still gotten health care before 2012?
I’m not sure, but I think you could have gotten some pieces of it. And yeah, if we’d held the House, we could have gotten it.
So you think health care, in part, was the reason you lost the House.
The depths of the recession, that the president didn’t want to blame Republicans because he wanted to work together, and health care—those were the factors.
Do you have any hope you’re going to get things done the rest of this year? It seems like the conventional wisdom is that—
People are forgetting two things. The right wing has had this advantage that they don’t want to get anything done, so inertia has been on their side. But inertia has changed sides. I keep thinking of the song from Guys & Dolls, “Luck Be a Lady,” you know, you’ve got to go home with the fella that brung you. Inertia has changed partners. If nothing happens this year, all the Bush tax cuts expire, and there’s a substantial further cut in military spending. The right wing cannot allow either one of those to happen, so they have to deal with us.
When you look at the other side now, and you look at someone like Boehner, who seems to be having a hard time controlling his caucus, and then you look at someone like O’Neill—
Well, first of all, O’Neill wasn’t able to discipline the Southerners. He had a dissenting wing that recognized they were the minority, that was the difference. In Boehner’s case, his right wing thinks they’re the majority, so they resent him being leader. The Southerners didn’t resent Tip; they just wanted to have an influence on him.
So it’s just a question of delusions?
Not delusions. It’s not clear who’s the majority in that party.
What accounted for Republicans following Gingrich?
He’s never been much of a legislator. This notion that he’s so bright, he talks about having ideas—I never considered him to be one of the brighter ones. He was a great political strategist and tactician. He convinced more and more Republicans that demonizing Democrats was what it would take to take power. They had been in the minority for so long, they had no stake in the system. They were ready to try and shake it up.
But was there anything about Gingrich’s personality in particular?
Well, he’s very driven, he’s not very ideological, he’s not very public-policy oriented, frankly—you’ve seen the switches back and forth. When Reagan came to power, Republicans really thought, this is it, we’re going to win. But by the mid-eighties it became clear that the Republicans were going to be a permanent minority in Congress. Gingrich was Moses. He could lead them out of that.
What are government’s prospects in the next decade? You’ve made your prediction about gay rights ten years from now, but what do you see as the role of government ten years from now?
I think it depends. If we can substantially reduce America’s worldwide military expenditures, I think the prospects are good. That will free up resources to allow us to start bringing down the level of debt or reducing the rate at which debt is accumulating, and free up funds.
I think people, particularly young people, want things done about climate change, I think they want things done about excessive inequality. I think there’s a very positive role for government, and I think the public wants it. I think we’ve seen that test with the tea party. The people who want to dismantle government came to power in the House. Now it’s blowing up in their face.
Is it just a question of reducing the military budget? It seems like Americans have an irrational relationship with government.
Yeah, they want more from the government, but they don’t want to pay for it. Now, the tea-party people thought the way to resolve that was to reduce what the government does. That turns out not to be popular. Many of us on the Democratic side think that the way to do it is to increase the revenues, mostly from wealthy people. Let me put it this way: I think the prospects of increased taxation on the wealthiest people and a reduction in the military are very likely.
And by the way, just one other thing: the polls. Do you want to cut Medicare? Eighty percent say no. Do you want to cut Social Security? Seventy-six percent no. Do you want to cut military commitments overseas? Sixty-five percent yes.
But at the same time, there’s that famous sign, “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare.” There’s this contradiction in what people want from government.
Yes, there is. But that’s because people don’t like government. You didn’t ask me what the attitudes would be toward government but what government would do. I think there will be an expansion of government’s activity. People may not call it government.
If the Republicans win everything in November, then we’re in for a very bleak period, because they’ll take it as ratification of this anti-government attitude. I think it’s going the other way. I have a bumper sticker for us: “We’re Not Perfect, But They’re Nuts.” And I think the public buys that.
Are there structural reforms that you think need to take place?
To get rid of the filibuster in the Senate.
Is that the only one?
That’s the only one.
You were talking about the Republicans and not being able to work with them. But isn’t your ultimate beef with the voters, since it’s the voters who reward that behavior?
I’m glad you said that, you’re very smart. These days, in developed countries, everybody says you need a private sector to create wealth, you need a public sector to create rules by which wealth is created. Sensible people understand that. The tension between left and right has been where you draw that line, but it’s been a contest between people who see maybe a 20 percent overlap. Let me read this to you. [Picks up copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.] “In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing.” [Closes book.]
Do you read Hayek a lot?
For these purposes. For the first time in American history, we have people in power now who reject that idea. If they knew it was Hayek, they might think, Well, maybe. But they reject the public sector. That’s why we can’t work together.
But that’s what I mean about the irrationality of voters. Just how—
The voters voted in general, not specifically. The voters were mad at the Democrats in 2010, so they voted for the tea party. They didn’t vote to cut Medicare. They voted to denounce the Democrats.
Do you get frustrated with voters acting with such pique: They throw out the Democrats just because they’re mad?
Politicians make mistakes, journalists make mistakes, and the public is no bargain either. Yeah, I get frustrated.
But some people in the media act like Washington is some autonomous entity that’s operating with no connection to the public. I had a woman stop me the other day, she said, “I’m very angry about Congress. What are you guys doing?” I said, “Who’s your congressman?” “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Well, see, I vote for me,” I said. “I’m happy with me. Why are you blaming me for the people you vote for?”