Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts Congressman who retired from the House of Representatives in 2013, is perhaps best known for a bill that carries his name: the Dodd-Frank Act, which aimed to reform Wall Street after the financial crash. Frank is also known for his acerbic personality and willingness to speak freely.
With the primary season in both parties dominating the news, I called Frank to get his views on both races. We discussed his problems with Jon Stewart, Justice Scalia, Bernie Sanders, Bernie Sanders supporters, The Big Short, and, of course, Donald Trump. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Isaac Chotiner: What do you make of Bernie Sanders’ success thus far, even if he is likely to come up short in terms of delegates?
Barney Frank: Remember he’s way behind not just in delegates but in votes.
Yeah I know, but still—
It’s ironic that we complain about voter suppression and shortened voting times and then we have so many caucuses. The caucuses are the least democratic political operation in America. They cater to the people who have a lot of time on their hands, and what’s interesting is Sanders is the nominee of the caucuses and Hillary is the nominee of the primaries.
I am disappointed by the voters who say, “OK I’m just going to show you how angry I am!” And I’m particularly unimpressed with people who sat out the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014 and then are angry at Democrats because we haven’t been able to produce public policies they like. They contributed to the public policy problems and now they are blaming other people for their own failure to vote, and then it’s like, “Oh look at this terrible system,” but it was their voting behavior that brought it about.
So it seems like you’re saying Bernie’s voters have a slightly unrealistic sense about the political process. And that this is driven—
I didn’t say slightly.
Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of his accomplishments and that’s because of the role he stakes out. It is harder to get things done in the American political system than a lot of people realize, and what happens is they blame the people in office for the system. And that’s the same with the Tea Party. It’s “I voted for these Republicans, we have a Republican Congress, we voted for them, they took over Congress, they didn’t accomplish anything.” You gotta win at least two elections in a row.
How do you think Dodd-Frank is working?
Very well. I think Steve Eisman, who is the Steve Carell character in The Big Short, and one of the heroes of this issue, had a very good article a couple weeks ago talking about how well things are working.
We’re not getting the bad loans made, and there’s a substantial increase in capital and stability. And I will say two things: First, people on the left who thought it would have no impact were clearly wrong, and [so were] people on the right who thought it would be a job-killer. It has allowed the financial system to continue to do its job, financing equity, but with much lower level of risk.
What did you make of The Big Short, by the way?
I didn’t see the movie. I read the book. Why?
Well, I know the situation, I read the book. I am told at the end of the movie they say nothing changed, which is nonsense.
The movie does say something like that. The politics of the movie are actually interesting because it’s more cynical than I think people like you are.
Right, so why would I want to see it?
Well, it’s got good acting and things like that.
I’m not a drama critic. Part of the problem is there is a tendency in the media to demonize politics to the extent that it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether with Jon Stewart or House of Cards or The Big Short. It basically tells people, “Everybody stinks, they’re all no good,” and that’s one of the reasons people don’t participate.
I think that part of the argument that people like Sanders would make is that, the financial system is corrupt fundamentally and that we don’t want to merely make it slightly more stable—
Well if that’s the case it’s even dumber than I thought. The financial system is people lending money to other people so they can do things. I do think that he overstates it when he says, “they’re all corrupt.” It’s simply not true. And by the way, when it comes to specifics, the only specific I have heard is Glass-Steagall, which makes very little change in the finance system.
I think he gets a pass from the media. Other than Glass-Steagall, what did he propose in 2009 and 2010 when he was a senator when we were dealing with this? The answer is nothing. Why haven’t you looked at his record?
Well if I ever interview him I’ll ask him that.
The media collectively.
What do you make of Hillary’s campaign?
I think it’s been good on the whole. I think she should have admitted earlier she made a mistake on the emails. I am struck by the fact that with all these emails of hers getting out, there hasn’t been a single really embarrassing one. I’m pleasantly surprised by that.
Do you think she should release her Wall Street speeches?
Yeah, but I don’t think anybody is really against her because she won’t. By the way, I think Sanders has been outrageously McCarthyite on that.
Yes, I saw one commercial that said the big companies weren’t punished. Why? Well, maybe it’s because Hillary is getting speaking fees. So the secretary of state should have been indicting people? I mean, yes, McCarthyite in the sense that it’s guilt by association. He complains about what she did with regards to all this money stuff. Where’s the beef of that?
What Sanders basically says is, “They’re trying to bribe you.” Well what do they get for money? He shows nothing.
There have been a couple of cases of Republican senators trying to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act. Elizabeth Warren has been a much more successful defender of that bill than Sen. Sanders has been.
There was this complaint, “Oh she had contributions from Wall Street.” So did Barack Obama. So does almost every Democrat because you can’t unilaterally disarm.
How do you feel about Obama’s presidency, looking back?
Well I’m on the whole supportive. I will tell you this, I am now ecstatic about his interview with Jeff Goldberg from the Atlantic. That is the most thoughtful presidential statement on a major issue I’ve seen in a very long time.
The one thing that disappoints me is on trade. I think he bought into the orthodoxy that says trade is good for everybody. What he should have said is, “here’s the deal I will support for trade, I want fast track, but only as part of a package which would raise the minimum wage and re-energize unions and restore the legal rights of unions, and do a massive construction program.” That was a fundamental error, and I don’t understand why he didn’t do that, and why he gives Republicans what they want without demanding things. Other than that I think he’s been very good.
Why do you think Trump did so well in your home state of Massachusetts?
Because the Massachusetts Republican Party has moved to the right along with the rest of the Republican Party. The Republican side in Massachusetts is a lot less different from the rest of the country than it used to be.
What have you made of your former governor Mitt Romney’s attempt to insert himself into the process?
It’s too little too late. It goes back as far as Sarah Palin. Having made Sarah Palin the vice presidential nominee, they shouldn’t be surprised when this kind of belligerent, angry, unintelligent, resentment politics comes forward. I think Mitt Romney woke up to the disaster that Trump is for the Republican Party.
Do you know Romney well?
No. He was a pretend governor. Actually, I debated him once when he was running against Kennedy in 1994. He was a pretend governor and immediately began running for president. He had no real interest in the state. He tried to choke off same-sex marriage, so I was pretty much on the other side of him, and he just didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody in the congressional delegation.
You don’t give him much credit for Romneycare, then?
That is true, but he did that along with Sen. Kennedy. I think it was so-so. Remember, at that point, even the Heritage Foundation was pushing for it.
Is there one explanation for Trump’s rise you find particularly convincing?
I guess the question in some ways is why didn’t it happen before, because what you had was a lot of people voting Republican out of anger and unhappiness with the way the world was going and then voting for the authors of most of the unhappiness. I think they were finally awakened to that disparity.
I think it’s relevant that Trump comes from outside the political system. That is, until recently, it was impossible to prosper as a Republican with national ambitions if you broke with the free market, economic conservative, free trade orthodoxy, and Trump has this unusual situation of having a great deal of prominence outside the political system, so he never had to follow that line.
What do you make of these state bills in places like Georgia that seek to limit gay rights?
I was pleasantly surprised: The fact that in Indiana and Georgia they can be vetoed is a very good sign. The other thing is now that Scalia is dead I am confident that the Supreme Court will not allow them.
Did you ever know Scalia at all?
I met him a couple of times.
What did you think of him?
I was troubled that his homophobia never got mentioned when he died. If he had been as comfortably prejudiced against African Americans, or women, or a lot of other groups, he would not have been considered such a wonderful person. He was a bigot. He expressed prejudice in his opinions.
Did you ever notice his bigotry in personal situations?
Oh, I never had enough contact with him to know that. Another thing, by the way: A lot of the Southern racists were notably courteous to people in person.