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Barney Frank Talks Shutdown, Calls an Old Colleague "Weird and Dissociated"

Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Isaac Chotiner: There are these faceless Republicans on the Hill, this Tea Party Caucus, and we see them saying crazy things in the newspaper. But who are they? I was just wondering how much interaction you had with them when you were in Congress.

Barney Frank: Well, it varied. With most of them not a lot, but with one in particular, frankly, I formed a pretty good relationship. Mick Mulvaney from South Carolina is one of the Republicans who’s intellectually honest about cutting spending even in the military. And we began to talk about that, and in my last year, 2012, we co-sponsored an amendment with his name first in the Republican House, which cut a billion dollars off the military appropriation—less than it should have been, but it was the last time an amendment like that ever passed. And I stayed in touch with him because I could work with him on that. 

I can’t think of any other Tea Party guy where I was ever able to collaborate on an issue. I got along very well with Ron Paul on a number of issues: gambling and marijuana on the libertarian side. But this was pre-dating the Tea Party, and we never really thought of it.

IC: Just to clarify, you do not mean that you gambled and smoked marijuana with Ron Paul?

BF: No, no I did not. Not for money.

IC: For those of us on the outside, we often just say ‘these people are crazy.’ Is that your emotional reaction too?

BF: A number of them are bizarre people. Paul Broun, from Georgia, is just weird and dissociated. On the other hand, I would say this—if you had dealings with them on things that were not political, they would not stand out in your mind as dysfunctional people. So I guess that’s the answer. Most of them appear to be very rational up to the time; they just have this strange set of political opinions.

IC: It’s just hard to understand where they’re coming from, especially because their strategy seems silly.

BF: The explanation is the parallel media universe. There are people who now live in this echo chamber and they listen to Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk show hosts, and their only channel to the outside is Fox News and they just believe these things. When McGovern lost, some people said ‘no, no, the problem was that McGovern wasn’t far enough left.’ The most ideologically committed factions on the left and on the right believe that the great majority of non-voters are theirs and they believe that the reason these people aren’t voting is that no one has given them the true version of their ideologies.

IC: How well did you know Boehner?

BF: Well, I never socialized with him.

IC: There was a piece in the Times on Saturday that was pretty remarkable, just about his lack of a plan. I was wondering what you think he’s hoping for.

BF: He’s a guy of above-average ability, he’s not a towering figure intellectually or in any other way. It is clear that up until recently he thought the regular order would prevail. The activists have finally completed their control of the Republican Party. So I think, I guess, his hope is that at some point the right-wingers who have him sort of terrified now will understand that they need to move. Here’s the dynamic: A number of Republicans, Peter King’s already spoken out, Devin Nunes, Charlie Dent, some others, will say to their conservative colleagues, ‘you’re not going to lose your seat, I understand that, but I’m going to lose my seat, and if I lose my seat you won’t be in the majority anymore, so this does affect you.’

IC: That’s interesting.

BF: So Boehner would be able to profit from being able to go and say to the right-wing: ‘Look, you’re going to cost us the majority, and then we’ll be much worse off,’ and never to the point that they would vote for a resolution but where they would not threaten to undo his speakership if he let a resolution come to the floor. I think what’s happening is that there are other Republicans who are just so afraid of a right-wing primary and that’s got him sort of paralyzed. I think he just generally, does not know what to do.

IC: Some reports have said that only 30-40 Republicans are really pushing this, but I don’t quite see how that could possibly be true.

BF: It has to be more than that. By the way, there may only be 30 or 40 Republicans who believe in their heart of hearts, but there are many more than that who believe they would lose primaries if they broke.

IC: I don’t want to get into false equivalence because this is 99% the fault of the House Republicans, who are crazy. The one critique of Obama that I would make, and it does worry me, is that the White House’s general willingness to compromise has made the Republicans think they will eventually compromise, which is potentially dangerous. 

BF: First of all, I think there’s just sort of a conflict between the two things you said. The first is right. These people are crazy. I don’t think, however, that Obama is dangerous one way or another. Again, I accept the scenario that Boehner and McConnell never wanted this to happen and just got their hands forced by these others. But Obama didn’t give in on health care in the first place. There was a time, remember, when Scott Brown won. It was Obama’s strength of will that drove this back in early 2010 when a number of people were concerned about it. And then the most recent  struggle was holding firm and getting tax increases re-instated for people above $400,000. So you know it’s not that he’s given in every time, and yeah he did give in once when he shouldn’t have, although, I think to be fair to him, if he had never done that, he might be more attacked now for not trying to compromise. And secondly, the sequester applies to the military as well as non-military. That was a big struggle. 

IC: I agree with you saying they held firm on health care. With taxes he had much more favorable circumstances, and still compromised.

BF: But he still held out and they were still threatening him with the meltdown of the government.

IC: That’s true, although, you know, I guess we can debate whether the Biden-McConnell deal was a good one. Anyway, what do you see as the most likely end game now?

BF: At some point, enough Republicans are going to be convinced that they are endangering their majority in the House to give Boehner a license to go ahead—not with the votes of the Tea Party faction—but without them declaring war on his speakership. I think it happens before the debt limit. 

By the way, one of the actors in the American political picture in recent years, one of the worst performances, goes to the financial community and the business community in general because we so hurt their feelings in the financial crisis that they have been funding these destructive crazy people ever since. I mean, they know better than that to be doing what they’re doing, to do away with the Fed and everything else. And I think what we finally are seeing now is the business community saying to them ‘no guys, this has got to stop now.’ 

IC: What do you make of Ted Cruz as a national figure?

BF: Oh, I haven’t been as eager to have someone nominated for president since Newt Gingrich blew up.

IC: It would be a shame if he flamed out too soon.

BF: It does not look like he is going to though, unfortunately. I’m told that people who knew him in law school say he was intelligent. But it does reinforce the point that there need not be any correlation between intellect and judgment. That they are two distinct things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.