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.