[Editor’s Note: In anticipation of Rep. Barney Frank’s retirement announcement, we revisit his candid May 2011 Playboy magazine interview.]
United States congressman Barney Frank is inarguably one of the most powerful and effective legislators in the House of Representatives. What’s arguable is whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Like so much in Washington, the answer usually comes down to party lines. Democrats tend to love him. Many Republicans don’t. But unique in an era of vitriolic partisan politics, even many of Frank’s detractors have praised his intelligence and eloquence. One Bush administration official called him “scary smart.” Republican Dana Rohrabacher described him as “very fair,” which is high praise coming from one of the most conservative House members. Frank has many admirers inside and outside the Beltway. Surveys of Capitol Hill staffers named him the “brainiest” and “most eloquent” member of the House. In a New Yorker profile of Frank, journalist Jeffrey Toobin wrote that in Congress Frank plays the “role of wise guy and wise man.” And a recent biography of Frank describes him as “the most unique and fascinating, certainly the most entertaining political figure in Washington.”
In the 30 years since he was first elected to Congress, Frank has been an advocate for the poor, has worked on many fronts to improve education and health care, was Bill Clinton’s staunchest defender throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal, pushed for the legalization of marijuana, hammered away at both Bush administrations for their wars in Iraq and has done more for gay rights than any other politician. Although he had been at the center of many national debates and instrumental in passing significant legislation, he was never before as prominent as he was in 2007 when he became chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the nation’s financial institutions, including banks and the securities, insurance and housing industries. Frank was on the hottest seat in the country when his chairmanship coincided with America’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Few Americans need to be reminded of the economic calamities of the past half decade. As HFS chairman, Frank was charged with working with the administration, Congress, economists and others to figure out how the disaster happened and—most important—how to fix it and prevent it from happening again.
Frank worked with the Bush administration and, after the 2008 election, the Obama administration, to develop, hone and help pass bailouts and other emergency measures. For his efforts he received a great deal of praise—the documentary Inside Job singles Frank out as one of the few heroes of the financial crisis—but he was also criticized, especially for his past defense of the government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which all but collapsed. Some attacks were virulent, none more so than the one from a raging Bill O’Reilly when Frank was a guest on The O’Reilly Factor. In the exchange, immortalized in a popular YouTube video, O’Reilly outdid himself even by his normal bombastic standards, shrieking at Frank and calling him a coward. Frank, when he could get a word in, chided O’Reilly’s “stupidity” and charged that he was “too dumb” to understand complex economics.
The highlight of Frank’s chairmanship was when, in close collaboration with then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, he pushed through historic financial-reform legislation that bears his and a Senate colleague’s names. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act increases the oversight and regulation of banks and other financial institutions and creates a new agency to protect consumers from practices that helped lead to foreclosures and bankruptcies. Many economists praise Dodd-Frank, saying it could prevent a similar financial crisis in the future. If it survives.
After the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans took over Congress, Frank lost his chairmanship. The new Congress now has Dodd-Frank in its sights. Without control of the Senate, never mind the White House, it’s unlikely Republicans could repeal the law, but they have the power to defund and therefore nullify many of its provisions. Now Frank is leading Democratic Party efforts to protect the reforms—as he describes it, “to mitigate the damage the Republicans can do.”
Frank, from Bayonne, New Jersey, served in the Massachusetts state legislature from 1972 until he became a U.S. congressman in 1981. One of his first campaign slogans played off his famous frumpiness: “Neatness isn’t everything.” Apparently not, because he has won every election since. Frank came out of the closet in 1987 as one of the first openly gay members of Congress, and he and others predicted it would end his political career. However, Frank handily won the next election with his largest margin to date. Since then he has been an outspoken advocate for gay rights. He was the driving force that led to the recent repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Last year Frank, who is 71, said he was considering retiring from Congress. But in early 2011 he announced he will seek reelection next year because he has “unfinished business, including doing what I can to make sure the Republicans don’t dismantle financial regulations and thereby set us up for another economic catastrophe.” Given this and many other national and international issues Frank is at the epicenter of, we went back to him for a second Playboy Interview. (The first was in 1999, not long after the House impeached Clinton.) We tapped Contributing Editor David Sheff, who conducted our earlier interview, for the assignment. Here’s Sheff’s report:
“This is one of the few times playboy has gone back to a politician for a second interview , in part because they never last that long in office. Many congressional seats are like those in a game of musical chairs, but not Frank’s. Since our first interview, his power as a congressman has increased. He hasn’t slowed—quite the opposite. I spent a typical day with him, which was filled with nonstop committee hearings, meetings with colleagues and constituents and interviews with CNBC and the BBC, all sandwiched between congressional votes. Frank says being in Congress is less satisfying now that the Republicans are in power, but part of him thrives in a familiar role as outsider and opposition. ‘I’m used to being in the minority,’ he once said. ‘I’m a left-handed gay Jew.’ ”
PLAYBOY: After the 2010 midterm elections, which ended your party’s hold on the House, is your job less fun?
FRANK: It’s not less fun, but it is less stressful. Being chairman is more work. Getting the reform bill was a lot of work because it was substantive and complex. There were many interests fighting against us, but it was important for the country. The stress level was high. There wasn’t a lot of sleep. When I was chairman, there were 71 members of the committee. When I went to bed at night, the number I thought about was 36, the number needed to win every vote. It was juggling, debating, deal making. It continued even after we completed the bill because we then had to replicate it to work it out with the Senate. There’s still a lot to do, of course, but it’s different. For now it’s about counterpunching. They set the agenda, and we respond.
PLAYBOY: Are you satisfied with your tenure as chairman?
FRANK: We accomplished a lot of important things at a moment when the country was in economic collapse. We reversed things. Now our job is to protect what we can so it doesn’t happen again.
PLAYBOY: What could make it happen again?
FRANK: The financial-reform bill that we passed has in place protections that will prevent the excesses that caused the crisis. It provides regulations and consumer protections. It’s all threatened by the Republicans, who want to dismantle it by defunding it.
PLAYBOY: Republicans argue your bill is a job killer and detrimental to the economy.
FRANK: It’s the same old thing they always say even though it has been discredited. Most sane people, including economists, agree the collapse was a result of a lack of regulations. But Republicans don’t want regulation. They say the free market is always right, that government is always wrong. They don’t want any regulation whatsoever, but that’s what got us into this mess in the first place.
PLAYBOY: What provisions of financial reform are threatened?
FRANK: Republicans are trying to re-deregulate by reducing funding to the SEC, which has new responsibilities for investor protection, and reducing funding for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. They want to defund these commissions, which are in place to regulate hedge funds and derivatives. They also want to reduce funding for the Bureau of Consumer Protection. I’m less worried about the consumer protection provisions; the Republicans will probably stay away from most of them because it will look bad if they go after consumers. Americans wanted credit card reform, but the other two.… There’s been all this talk about the shadow banking system, which is part of what caused the economic crash. We succeeded in finding ways to end it, but the Republicans want it back. I think of the old radio show: What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.… What evil lurks in the heart of their shadow financial system? We were trying to do away with it, but the Republicans are working to ensure it stays how it was, which caused the mess in the first place.
PLAYBOY: Besides losing the Democratic majority in the House, how else have things changed with the new Congress, especially as it includes members of the Tea Party?
FRANK: The Republicans are trying to hold their side together, which is difficult because the leadership has to make the Tea Party types happy. It isn’t easy for them. They aren’t able to move forward in ways they want to because of the instability inherent in that dynamic.
PLAYBOY: Twelve years ago, when asked about the overall caliber of members of Congress, you said Americans were by and large well represented, that our elected representatives were “a smart group.” Is that still true?
FRANK: I’d say it’s a little less smart. There are people around now who have been elected to the House who wouldn’t have been in the past.
PLAYBOY: Why? Many people see the election as a referendum on your party and President Obama. The bottom line is that the public didn’t like what you guys did.
FRANK: The problem was that at the time of the election, the economy was weak. Things had been progressing, getting better, but then we were hit by the crisis in Greece. It was bad timing. Also, we were punished because of the bailouts, which made people angry. The bailouts began under Bush, of course, but people’s memories are short. There was a perception that the rich were getting richer while everyone else was suffering. It’s ironic because the Republicans support the executive salaries that people rightfully hate. They don’t want to tax the rich. People support the Republicans against their own interests. But people are angry, which I understand. So it was a combination of the bad economy and anger because the people who caused the bad economy appeared to be getting rewarded.PLAYBOY: In retrospect, were the bailouts the right strategy?
FRANK: The strategy has been vindicated. Each one—AIG, TARP, the banks, the car companies. There was a big problem that would have been impossible to fix overnight, and it had no one solution, but we stopped things from getting as bad as they could have. The entire economy was at risk of complete collapse, and we stopped that.
PLAYBOY: Republicans say financial reform and the health care bill will cost jobs at a time when unemployment is still high.
FRANK: It’s nonsense. It’s the same right-wing ideology. It’s a Republican mantra, but nothing we did will cost jobs.
PLAYBOY: You said you understand voter anger. Do you understand the reaction that led to a Congress with 35 newly elected members who have never before held political office? People were fed up.
FRANK: Yes, and when things aren’t going well, Americans want change.
PLAYBOY: What’s the impact of all those untested and inexperienced members in the House?
FRANK: I haven’t felt an impact yet, but the Republican leadership has. It has had to pull back and adopt positions it never would have before. It hasn’t been able to maintain control. The Republican leadership needs to build itself to the point that it can exercise some restraint on its extremist members. I don’t know if it will be able to. In my opinion, the extremism is destructive because there’s no room for compromise—or never mind compromise; there’s no room for civil debate. The big difference is that many of these people don’t believe the differences we have are legitimate disagreements between reasonable people. It used to be that way. Now the Republicans have to take a far angrier tone. There’s no working together. They don’t accept give-and-take. Moderate Republicans have to worry about appearing moderate; they have to hate us.
PLAYBOY: Are you saying moderate Republicans aren’t being honest about their own positions and their rhetoric is only to placate the extreme right?
FRANK: For some, it’s legitimate. For some, it’s posturing. At Ted Kennedy’s funeral, Orrin Hatch boasted in an almost unseemly fashion about what a great friend he was. He told all these stories in which Kennedy was the hero. Now he’s repudiating the notion that he can work with Democrats.PLAYBOY: There has always been angry and divisive politics. Are things worse now?
FRANK: It’s been worse ever since Newt Gingrich took over the Republicans. He realized the party wouldn’t make inroads the way it was going, so it was very calculated. He said, “We’re never going to win until we demonize the Democrats. Stop saying they’re honorable people with whom we disagree and start saying they’re bad people, evil people.”
PLAYBOY: You were embroiled in the battles as they manifested during the attempt by Gingrich and other Republicans to impeach President Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. You supported Clinton. Looking back, how do you assess that time?
FRANK: It was one of the most ludicrous times in the history of Washington, when Congress spent all its time and money on the president’s sex life rather than addressing the nation’s real problems.
PLAYBOY: At the time you famously said you were unable to fully read special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report on his investigation into Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky because it entailed “too much reading about heterosexual sex.”
FRANK: It was an embarrassing time for the country. The anger and vitriol have been going on since then, a focus on things that don’t matter but are a distraction and get people angry. It’s manipulative and counterproductive. As a result, we have a Congress in which many people don’t want to find things we can agree on, which means there will be a stalemate. They took advantage of the climate in America. Now we have all these angry people representing other angry people. Rather than working together to fix things, to repair things, the Republicans are just using that anger to try to dismantle the progress we made that helped pull us out of the recession.
PLAYBOY: Part of the Republicans’ criticism of you and your fellow Democrats is that your solutions to the economic problem—new regulations, new and expanded regulatory agencies—involve spending money we don’t have.
FRANK: We have the money to fund the bill, and I’d argue we can’t afford not to.
PLAYBOY: Along with killing the financial reforms, Republicans want to kill Obama’s health care bill. Will they succeed?
FRANK: I don’t think they’ll get away with it. By the election in 2012, important provisions of the health care bill will have kicked in, and people will see the catastrophes they’ve been warned about haven’t happened. Reality will refute the prejudice. People will see that they’re beneficiaries. A pilot stopped me a few days ago in an airport and thanked me. He said, “My son has health care now. Don’t let them take it away.” More and more people will experience the change firsthand.
PLAYBOY: As with the financial reforms, Republicans claim America can’t afford the health care bill. They continue to cite the budget and the deficit.
FRANK: If they’re really concerned about the budget and deficit, they should join me to cut the defense budget. It needs massive reductions. We can save at least $150 billion a year.
PLAYBOY: It’s a familiar split between the two parties. Isn’t it unlikely Republicans will cut the defense budget?
FRANK: Actually at this point they may come on board. The Tea Partyers want to trim government spending and don’t want America to be the world’s police, so maybe there’s hope. It’s something we agree on.
PLAYBOY: Does it surprise you that you and the Tea Party Republicans agree on an issue?
FRANK: Well, the problem with their take on this is that some of it comes from xenophobia. They’d cut economic assistance to poor children who aren’t American. However, there’s still agreement that spending tens of billions of dollars on nation building doesn’t work or make sense. There’s agreement that we’re spending far too much on defense. It’s inarguable we’re way overcommitted.
PLAYBOY: How would you cut defense spending?
FRANK: We don’t need to be in Western Europe anymore. They don’t need us to defend them. From whom? There’s no threat. Even if there were, they’re wealthy enough to do it on their own. I’d cut way back on our nuclear arsenal. Our nuclear capabilities are ridiculous. We’re overloaded in nuclear weapons and Russia isn’t a threat anymore. Generally we’re greatly overcommitted throughout the world. Yes, North Korea is a problem, and we should stay in South Korea, but we don’t need troops in Japan. Why? We’re still trying to be the world’s policeman and have no business doing so. It gets us into trouble, and we can’t afford it.
PLAYBOY: What would you do about the threat of a nuclear Iran?
FRANK: It’s a problem, but the Iranians know that if they were to use nuclear weapons, we would retaliate heavily. We have a hundred times more weapons than we need to do that.
PLAYBOY: How would cuts affect the war on terrorism?
FRANK: The biggest threat now is terrorism. Yes, it’s a real threat. They do want to kill us. But it’s not expensive to fight terrorism. You don’t win with nuclear submarines. I wish you did. If you did, we’d win, because they don’t have any.PLAYBOY: Do you agree we need a military presence in countries to prevent them from becoming havens for terrorists?
FRANK: The problem is we can’t plug every hole. It’s impossible. If we get the terrorists out of Afghanistan, they can go to Pakistan. If they aren’t in Pakistan, they can go to Yemen. If not Yemen, Somalia. If not Somalia, Ethiopia. If not there, Syria, Lebanon, anywhere. It doesn’t make sense.
PLAYBOY: What would you have us do?
FRANK: Bring the troops home, bring the money home and do the best we can to protect ourselves. We can do a lot with that money. That will make us stronger.
PLAYBOY: How exactly should we fight terrorism?
FRANK: Not by occupying countries. Not by invading them. The more than trillion dollars we spent in Iraq was our biggest mistake, not just because of all that wasted money but because we create terrorists when we try nation building. The biggest mistake any president ever made was when Bush invaded Iraq. His argument was that it was going to stabilize the Middle East and intimidate radicals, but all it did was create more radicals. Iran was strengthened and so were the terrorists. Fighting terrorism is important, but it’s a different kind of fight: targeted, precise. It’s also much less expensive.
PLAYBOY: Politicians always seem unwilling to cut defense because they are afraid they’ll seem weak.
FRANK: Yes, and it’s the biggest constraint on Democrats because they’re especially afraid of being accused of being weak. My one big criticism of Obama is that he has bought into that.
PLAYBOY: Aren’t politicians also loath to cut defense spending because it creates jobs and defense contractors are a powerful lobby?
FRANK: It’s not the main problem. The problem is the ideology: “America has to be strong.” Yeah, it does, but we don’t have to waste money. A high-ranking general told a friend, “We gear up for a threat and then we never undo it, and then we gear up for the next threat.…” That’s how we got where we are, and no one’s willing to take it on. As I said, though, that may change now. We need the money for other things.
PLAYBOY: You said your one criticism of Obama is his refusal to cut defense, which in his last budget remained at similar levels as in the past. How has he done on other fronts? How do you rate his presidency so far?
FRANK: He’s done a good job. He’s gotten a lot done. Working through the financial-reform bill was huge. It was very hard. There was a great collaboration with him, and I’m pleased by that. Health care is very important. I’m not a foreign-policy expert, but I think he’s doing a good job there, too.
PLAYBOY: How do you respond to critics of his handling of the revolution in Egypt as it unfolded?
FRANK: I think he was very good. He played it as he should have. My complaint isn’t about the way he handled it. It’s about our general view that we have anything to say about it in the first place. It’s important to remember that it was their business and not ours. My view is it’s not ours to handle. We’re not in charge. It’s part of the whole overreach of America that says we’re supposed to decide what’s going to happen in Egypt. Why do we set ourselves up as if we have influence? We had no influence on what happened. We have to deflate expectations that we can solve everyone’s problems.
PLAYBOY: Are you worried post-Mubarak Egypt could follow Iran and become another Islamic fundamentalist state?
FRANK: It’s a concern. The relationship with Israel is a concern too. However, the new government in Egypt is accountable to its people in a way it never was before. Most people will judge them on how they handle the economy. They have to improve it. That’s what most people want. To do that, they have to keep military expenses down. If they were to escalate hostilities, it would be bad for their economy. Also, we have some common interests. One is that Iran is hostile, and any Egyptian government should be worried about a nuclear Iran. We also have a common concern about Hamas, which is on Egypt’s border. But yes, it’s a risk. We support democracy, but it can produce terrible radicalism. What we should try to do is work with these people. That doesn’t mean telling them what we think they should do. It means we should work with them in ways that will encourage a benign democracy. In the meantime, we have a lot to do at home; we should be working to solve domestic problems.
PLAYBOY: A domestic problem you’ve frequently addressed is the lack of housing for the poor. Do you acknowledge it was the government’s encouragement and support of home ownership that set up many people to take on mortgages they couldn’t afford?
FRANK: I’ve always pushed for rental housing. Clinton and Bush were pushing home ownership, but I’ve always been skeptical of it. Owning a home is supposedly the American dream, but I think the American dream is having a place to live in that you can afford. People were sold a bill of goods. They were told that if you owned a home, you’d get rich as the house appreciated. But that’s not what’s been happening. For many people, renting is a better alternative.
PLAYBOY: Larry Summers, who was one of the president’s main economic advisors, argued that renting doesn’t help people. People need pride of ownership. He said, “People don’t wash rented cars.”
FRANK: Cars and houses are different, but people do wash leased cars. I think we should have spent this time building quality affordable rental housing rather than getting people into homes they couldn’t afford.
PLAYBOY: The entities that helped many Americans buy homes they couldn’t afford were the government’s lending institutions, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which were under your purview as chairman. You were attacked for telling Americans that Freddie and Fannie were in good shape even as they were on the brink of collapse. At the time you said they “were not endangering the fiscal health of the country.” How do you respond to charges that you are partly responsible for people losing fortunes by investing in Freddie and Fannie?
FRANK: When I said they were in reasonable shape, I thought they were. I was too sanguine. I made a mistake. But when I said that, we were in the minority in Congress. I had no influence over anything. It didn’t matter what I said. When it did matter, the next year, when we were in power, I changed my position.
PLAYBOY: Do you accept any responsibility?
FRANK: Responsibility for what? I wasn’t in power then.
PLAYBOY: Bill O’Reilly attacked you on this. He said you were blaming everyone else. He called you a coward.
FRANK: He had no interest in a discussion about what really happened. It’s what he does.
PLAYBOY: Why would you agree to be on his show?
FRANK: If you don’t go on, he says those things unrefuted, but I wouldn’t do it again. He suffered for that behavior and apologized.
PLAYBOY: Whether it’s O’Reilly on the right or Lawrence O’Donnell on the left, do you worry political discourse has given way to shouting matches?
FRANK: I do. The climate has gotten meaner, and no one listens to one another. Politics has gotten meaner. Polarization isn’t good. It divides us and we don’t come together, which means we can’t effectively solve problems.
PLAYBOY: How has the internet affected discourse?
FRANK: You can’t make mistakes now. There’s no room for mistakes because everything will be out there instantly.
PLAYBOY: Sometimes politicians seem to forget everything will be out there. For example, what was your reaction when your colleague Congressman Chris Lee was exposed after sending a picture of himself with his shirt off to a woman he met on Craigslist?
FRANK: Well, sometimes people bring it on themselves by their stupidity. The internet isn’t forgiving. There’s a lot of good in the technology, but there are dangers.
PLAYBOY: Do some come in the form of WikiLeaks?
FRANK: Yes, and I’m concerned about it. There’s a need for people to be able to talk in private. I’m especially concerned about the leaked diplomatic cables. Diplomats have to make candid assessments that are private. Releasing them was a great unfairness. People were put at risk. I was amused that Mr. Assange was upset because some of his people are publishing a book about him, revealing his secrets. He said it was unfair and invaded his privacy.
PLAYBOY: How else has the internet changed politics?
FRANK: There’s good there. People know more and can be involved. It has also been part of a worrying trend, which is a merging of opinion and journalism. It’s harder to find objective journalism. It’s harder to find what we used to call real news in the middle of shouting matches and gossip. Journalists should be skeptical. That’s their job. In many cases now it’s about advocating for one side or the other. Also, now the competition is to find the worst news. Bad news sells, apparently. And the worse the better.
PLAYBOY: Let’s move on to some other issues. You were instrumental in the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Is the final nail in the coffin?
FRANK: Absolutely, and it’s something I’m proud of. The Speaker and Senate majority leader essentially put me in charge of the strategy to get it through. It was hard to do, and it’s an important bill.
PLAYBOY: After the repeal, a right-wing journalist asked about the problems the bill will cause because openly gay men will be taking showers with straight men. You said, “We don’t get ourselves dry-cleaned.”
FRANK: I borrowed that from Alfred Hitchcock. A man complained to Hitchcock that after watching the famous shower scene in Psycho, his wife no longer took showers. Hitchcock said, “Have her dry-cleaned.” The fact is, after all the fuss about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there’s been no great backlash against its repeal. As we go forward people will see that it has had absolutely no negative effect, and it will be an issue of the past. There are always predictions of horrible things that will happen, but repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” will have no negative consequences. We haven’t weakened anything. Gay men and lesbians in the military will serve with distinction along with the other soldiers.
PLAYBOY: Is the legalization of gay marriage next?
FRANK: I don’t see any change there. I don’t see Congress doing anything about it.
PLAYBOY: Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Although states may allow same-sex marriage, only recently did Obama say the federal government would no longer defend DOMA in court.
FRANK: There are lawsuits against it that I think will win anyway, because the federal government can’t discriminate. Beyond that I don’t see anything about gay marriage happening on a federal level. More and more states will go that way, though. When they do, people will see, as with health care and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” that there are no negative consequences. Places that have gay marriage have had none of the negative consequences that people warned us about. Zero. The divorce rate hasn’t gone up. There have been no calamities. Marriage hasn’t lost its meaning. Same-sex marriage as a divisive issue is losing its steam. Overall I think antigay prejudice is on its way out.
PLAYBOY: Even from the religious right? The virulent attacks continue.
FRANK: But they aren’t taken seriously. It’s changing. It’s just evolution.
PLAYBOY: What’s behind the evolution?
FRANK: People are out. More and more people know people who are gay. People have gay friends and relatives; it’s not kept in the closet anywhere near as much as it used to be.
PLAYBOY: Antigay sentiments are still expressed, often from the conservative right and especially from the Christian right. There are still hate crimes against gays.
FRANK: Yes, and we have to deal with them. We passed a bill to add crimes against gays and lesbians as hate crimes. Hate crimes, whether against gays or anyone else, can’t be tolerated. Overall, antigay prejudice is diminishing. It won’t be used by the far right the way it once was. It just doesn’t work anymore. But I worry about what will replace it. I think they will increasingly focus on abortion, escalating it as their issue to inflame people. They’ll work on whittling away the right to have an abortion, striking down any federal funding.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said abortion foes “feel as if life goes from conception to birth.” What did you mean?
FRANK: They say no abortion, but they don’t want to take care of the kids when they’re born. They don’t want to help mothers raise their children. They don’t want to feed or educate kids. But they’ll increasingly use abortion as an issue in coming elections.
PLAYBOY: Looking to the next presidential election, what’s your take on the likely Republican contenders? Were you surprised to hear that your old adversary Newt Gingrich may be running?
FRANK: We Democrats have not lived lives sufficiently pleasing to God to have Gingrich be the Republican nominee in 2012.
PLAYBOY: Sarah Palin?
PLAYBOY: What’s your impression of Palin?
FRANK: There’s less there than meets the eye.
PLAYBOY: Then to what do you attribute her continuing prominence?FRANK: She presents better than the reality. She does fit the current mood, but there isn’t much substance there.
PLAYBOY: Mitt Romney?
PLAYBOY: Is there anyone who could be a threat to President Obama?
FRANK: Not in the current crop. An American saying goes, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
PLAYBOY: If he wins reelection, what would you like Obama to push for as a second-term president?
FRANK: The same as now—financial reform, protecting health care. I’d like him to take on defense. I’d like him to do better helping poor people. It’s another thing I disagree with him on. In his budget he cut things that will hurt the poorest of the poor to show his bona fides as a budget cutter.
PLAYBOY: You’ve pushed for legalizing marijuana. Can you see the president joining you on that one?
FRANK: That’s not likely. Marijuana is clearly a case where the public is way ahead of the politicians. The current policy is ludicrous. It’s unfair and wasteful. It contributes to the illegal trade, the cartels and the big traffickers. I’m disappointed in some of my liberal friends for not moving on marijuana. It’s generational; changes are coming.
PLAYBOY: What should be done with the war on drugs?
FRANK: All that money should be spent on prevention and treatment. The war on drugs doesn’t work, it doesn’t stop people from using, and we spend a fortune.
PLAYBOY: After the Tucson massacre, is new gun-control legislation likely?
FRANK: No. Nothing will change on that. The only thing that could happen is more monitoring so it’s harder for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them. I hope.
PLAYBOY: Clearly you have a long list of issues about which you still feel strongly, yet you had planned to retire after this term, at least according to some reports. Were they accurate?
FRANK: I thought of stepping down, yes.
PLAYBOY: You recently announced you’ll run again. What changed your mind?FRANK: If the Democrats had held the House, maybe I would have retired. I thought it might be a good time. But we lost, and there’s too much at stake. I would have felt I was abandoning the battle when we were under siege.
PLAYBOY: After 30 years in this job, you’ve encountered many times when things were going well for the country and many when they were going badly. Is this just another swing of the pendulum, or are you particularly worried now?
FRANK: The threat to public policy is serious. We had a financial meltdown and were able to stop it. We put in place regulations that could prevent it from happening again. If it does happen again, we don’t know if we’ll be able to stop it. And yet the Republicans are trying to reverse the regulations. They’re inflaming anger rather than seeking rational solutions. We’re at risk of being unable to fix the problems we need to fix—education, health care, the deficit and many others. Yes, I’m worried.
PLAYBOY: In The New Yorker Congressman Scott Garrett, a Republican on the Financial Services Committee, was quoted as saying about you, “Barney has a great deal of faith in government to solve people’s problems. The question is whether that faith is justified.” Is it?
FRANK: The truth is I don’t have faith in government to solve problems. What I do have faith in is our ability to come together to solve problems. It’s what’s hanging in the balance now. There’s no outside entity called government. It’s all of us, collectively and jointly. Will we be able to solve America’s problems? That’s why we’re elected. All I can tell you is that I’ll keep trying.