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Barney Frank Defends Nancy Pelosi from Her Critics

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President Trump’s racist remarks about four progressive Democratic members of Congress—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—have unified the Party against a common adversary. On Tuesday, House Democrats passed a resolution condemning Trump’s “racist comments that have legitimized fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” But a divide regarding policy and strategy remains between the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, the four freshman Democrats, and other House members calling for the immediate impeachment of the President.

After the vote to condemn Trump, Representative Al Green, of Texas, filed articles of impeachment against the President, a move that will force Pelosi to table Green’s measure, refer it to the House Judiciary Committee, or proceed with a full vote in the House. Next Wednesday, the issue will arise again when the former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees about his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and obstruction of justice by Trump. Eighty-two of the House’s two hundred and thirty-five Democrats have said that they currently support impeaching the President.

To discuss the state of the Democratic Party, and Pelosi’s leadership, I spoke by phone on Monday with Barney Frank, the former congressman, who represented his district in Massachusetts for more than three decades in the House before retiring, in 2013. He is best known for his outspokenness and his role in crafting the eponymous Dodd-Frank Act, which sought to regulate the financial industry after the crash last decade. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why he thinks the criticism of Pelosi is unfair, whether there is a divide in the Democratic Party, and his belief that this dispute is not really a generational one.

What have you made of the internal split between Pelosi and some of her members?

I’m disappointed by it. I think the first thing to say is that it is not nearly as big a split as people think. They are a fraction, a splinter. The overwhelming majority of the Democrats agree with [Pelosi]. Frankly, I think there is a conspiracy among Ocasio-Cortez, the media, and the Republican Party to make her look much more influential than she is. Every time I debate a Republican, they want to talk about them. And I think, in fact, that there is not such a big splinter. There have always been, on the Democratic side—Howard Dean, etc.—people who are very passionate and are frustrated because reality isn’t as pliable as they wish. They are people who I think make the fundamental mistake—I often agree with them on substance—but they make the fundamental mistake of thinking the general public is much more in agreement with them than it is, and forget about or just reject the notion of trying to figure out how to get things done.

I agree with you that Ocasio-Cortez represents a minority of the Party, even though I think she is probably fairly similar on politics to [Bernie] Sanders and [Elizabeth] Warren, who I think combined make up a somewhat—

No, here’s the fundamental difference. I said I agree with a lot of them on substance. The issue is not substance. I have worked very closely with Elizabeth Warren. The fundamental difference is that these people—certainly Ocasio-Cortez—they appear to think that the majority is ready to adopt what they want, and it’s a strategic and tactical difference.

Elizabeth Warren would never have had a sit-in protesting Nancy Pelosi. It’s a matter of how you go about things. It is their view that the only reason that their platform isn’t being adopted is the political timidity, maybe the malign influence of money. The notion that there is significant political opposition among many people, including maybe a majority on some issues, they disregard that and denounce other Democrats, saying they don’t have the courage. It’s not the courage. We don’t have the votes sometimes. Sanders did that a little bit more. Elizabeth never does that.

On the financial-reform bill, Elizabeth Warren worked closely with us. For example, when Russ Feingold said he was voting against it because it was not as good as it could be, she called him up and tried to talk him into it, unsuccessfully. On a number of issues when people made what I thought were unrealistic demands, Elizabeth joined in explaining to people why they were unrealistic. I think that’s the difference. It’s not substance. It’s political approach.

I don’t disagree with any of that, but I do think some of the critiques of Pelosi in the last few months may have something more to them.

What? I don’t think so at all. I think she—remember the critiques were originally that she was too far to the left. So what critiques do you think make sense?

I understand not wanting to do impeachment, even if you think the President deserves to be impeached. I understand—

By the way, two-thirds of the House Democrats agree with [Pelosi].

Yes. Let me just finish. I think she has seemed bored and uninterested in public about the idea of investigating Trump, and given off a vibe that she is just not even, forget impeachment, just—

Nonsense. Nonsense. It’s nonsense on stilts, as Jeremy Bentham said. The fact is that you have the Democratic House committees working very hard at it. She said he ought to go to prison. She is working very hard on the substance and has done a great job of getting things through, but she has also [been] working closely with the committees, Elijah Cummings and others. Part of the problem is what the TV chooses to run. They like controversy. So she is more often quoted when she is disagreeing on impeachment than when she is making her own critiques.

O.K., well—

If you monitor her statements closely, I find her—she has been very critical of Trump and she has got the Democrats doing oversight.

When she was asked about [the departing Labor Secretary] Alex Acosta being impeached, she said, “It’s up to the President. It’s his Cabinet. We have a great deal of work to do here for the good of the American people—we need to focus on that.” It’s comments like that which I feel like show—

What do you mean “like that?” That’s one comment on one issue. The fact is that I think, in part, what she’s trying to do is put the blame on him and put the pressure on him. But that was one comment on one issue. It just seems to me she’s had a barrage against him, including now this resolution they’re going to do criticizing him for the comments about “Go back where you came from.” Plus, that’s not been the basis of Ocasio-Cortez’s, that’s not been the basis of the complaints—that she doesn’t seem interested. That’s really reaching.

Look, you must have read her interview with Maureen Dowd. She says, “You can’t impeach everybody.”

Right! And you can’t. And she’s right about that. It’s more important, I believe, to talk about the substance.

O.K., but—

And, again, that happens, though, because she is being pressed by the media to respond to those arguments and she is explaining her answers. But she has certainly been hypercritical of Trump.

Whatever you think of the immigration deal that she agreed to after Senate Democrats cut out the ground from under her, I thought her publicly saying that she was going to rely on Mike Pence to update her on things was embarrassing. And—

It wasn’t embarrassing. She was trying to make the best of a bad situation. I agree with that. I think she did the best she could. The fact is that they couldn’t do better.

Let me just ask you a broader—

What do you think she should have done? I know it’s nice to always just be critical of what other people do, but what do you think she should have done?

I am not sure on the substance, but—

Of course not. Because it is hard and it gets criticized. Whatever.

I was talking about the way she has been acting publicly, but I see your point. But let me—

She said he should go to prison. She has made a lot of other very negative statements. You are just cherry-picking to make a point.

I will bring this back to our current conversation. What have you made of Joe Biden’s comments that, if he were to become President, he would and could work with Mitch McConnell—that you really can reach across the aisle and get things done?

Oh, I think that was a mistake. It reminded me of when [President Barack] Obama said he was going to be post-partisan, and I said he gave me post-partisan depression. I understand the political motive because that is, unfortunately, the message a lot of people say they want to hear. But I don’t think it works. And, by the way, I think it would evanesce very completely. It wouldn’t come to anything.

I’m curious whether you think part of the split we are seeing in the Democratic Party is kind of an age thing—

No, that’s ridiculous. You just cited two seventy-year-olds.

Well—

You just cited two septuagenarians!

Hold on, let me finish.

Jeez.

Wait, hold on. I cited two seventy-year-olds, and you pointed out very interestingly that those two seventy-year-olds have a different way of going about it than their younger ideological allies.

Four. You greatly exaggerate Ocasio-Cortez’s—there’s four of them. There aren’t very many, including many of the younger people. By the way, the Democrats that Pelosi is most concerned about are younger ones. She is working very hard with the thirty- and forty-year-olds who won the marginal seats. The difference is not age. It is your perception of the electorate’s position. If you believe the electorate is raring to go with all this left agenda—as I said, much of which I agree with, the difference I have with them is more strategic—then you take some of their positions. If you believe that it is a much harder sell, then you have a different approach. . . . But if you look at the freshmen, by definition the younger ones, overwhelmingly, they are on Pelosi’s side. But they won Republican or marginal seats.

So you don’t feel that in some of the different ways that different Democrats try to communicate, that people from a different age group sometimes come across differently?

No! Let me reiterate. Frankly, you have to do your homework. What are the age groups of the people she is defending? Sharice Davis, how old is she? [She is thirty-nine.]

I am not saying in all cases.

You are talking about four people. I am talking about forty or thirty . . . I am very clear what I mean. It is not age. It is your perception of the electorate. Your perception of how far left the electorate is and how willing they are to accept things. Do you think you have to do them in steps? Do you think you have to worry about opposition? Or do you think the public is with you and anybody who doesn’t go for the whole thing right away is a coward? That’s why the people who come from the tougher districts overwhelmingly disagree with them.

Are we in a time where you feel like normal political calculations might have to be changed, or maybe it’s worth being more risky or bold?

Yeah, my own view is that there should be more emphasis on substance. I think there are two people who have been forgotten about: James Michael Curley and Adam Clayton Powell. They were both very successful politicians who did very bad things, who violated the law and conventional morality. But the more they did that, the more support they got from their political bases, which consisted of people who thought the whole system was rigged against them. And the more they said “fuck you” to conventional morality, the more they were cheered on.

I think we should stop putting so much emphasis on showing people what bad things [Trump] has done from the legal and ethical standpoint—which is impeachment—and talk more about the fact that the tax bill was so unfair, that there is no infrastructure going forward, that he is attacking health care. The things that were successful in 2018. So I think we should be even tougher and call his bluff on the substantive things. . . . I am not talking about any concessions to him.

When you watch the [Democratic Presidential-primary] debates, do you not think there are ways that the Party is moving left in substantive ways?

Can I tell you for the third time that I agree with much of them on substance? I’m sorry, that’s frustrating to me. I agree with them on much of the substance. I said that several times! The Party is moving to the left and I think that it should move to the left. I just talked about some of these areas. But the point I am making is that the difference is not substantive so much as it is strategic and tactical. So I don’t know why you would ask me that. By the way, I also take exception to you saying that I think they are in the minority. They are overwhelmingly, statistically, clearly in a minority in the House.

For the record, I will state that they are in a minority in the House.

And even more so in the Senate. I mean, the Senate is different.

I don’t know if you remember, but I interviewed you many years ago, back when I was at The New Republic. Do you feel a sense of sentimentality talking to me again?

I honestly remember less and less now. You know, the synapses kick in. But I really urge you to go look at the ages of the members of Congress, because I think it explodes the generational argument.



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