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In Conversation: Barney Frank


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.


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