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Fmr. Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D - Montana)

posted on December 26, 2013

Getting acquainted.  Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer sees Iowa and New Hampshire voter similarities with those who twice elected him Governor.  Just so happens those are key first states in a presidential run.  We're questioning democrat Brian Schweitzer followed by a political writer roundtable discussion on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Iowa's role in winnowing presidential candidates, perhaps we might even say sometimes anointing candidates on their way to their party's nomination, attracts a lot of lookers, that is both those considering a campaign and those watching who is coming to the state.  Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is one of those spending some time in Iowa right now.  Montana term limits ended his stay in the governor's office at this time last year but during those two terms he vigorously promoted Montana's coal industry as an energy alternative to foreign oil.  He is 58 years old, now chairs the Stillwater Mining Company's Board of Directors.  Governor Schweitzer, welcome to Iowa and welcome to Iowa Press.

Schweitzer: It's great to be here.  It's great to be back in Iowa.

Borg: Thank you.  Across the table, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Governor, you have said that the 2016 race for the Democratic Party’s nomination should not be a coronation.  Why?

Schweitzer: Well, because we're a democracy and we don't just choose the royal families.  And I think we've been, gosh, we had Bush, Bush, Bush and Clinton, Clinton and now we're talking about a Bush or a Clinton again.  And I think in America we're always looking for leadership that takes us to the future.  And we're not often looking in the rear view mirror for our leadership.

Henderson: Are you a challenger to the throne?

Schweitzer: No, gosh, no.  I tell you what.

Henderson: So why are you here if not to lay the foundation for a presidential candidate?

Schweitzer: You know, I respected my mother's opinion and she said when people nicely invite you over, stop by, be nice and so I was invited to come to Iowa.

Henderson: But you made it pretty clear that you think democrats should nominate a leader who is different from Senator Clinton.

Schweitzer: Not necessarily different but I think we need to look at a leader that is going to be talking about the future.  We want to make sure that we're choosing a leader, whether the republicans are going to start here in Iowa, the democrats are going to start here in Iowa, let's choose those leaders who are looking to the future.  Maybe we want to make sure that mistakes that have been made in the past are not the mistakes that we make in the future.

Lynch: One of those mistakes that you talk about is Senator Clinton's 2002 vote to go to war in Iraq.  And if we're looking to the future should that vote disqualify her from the nomination and the presidency in 2016?

Schweitzer: I don't think so.  But in addition to Iraq can you find somebody in Iowa who can tell you why we're still in Afghanistan?  Can you find somebody in Iowa or any place else in America that can say why we went to Afghanistan and why we're still there?  Because it is all kind of confusing for us.  It's the longest war in American history and we're still there.  Now, it's a dozen years long and about five years of it has been under a democratic administration.  Why did we go there?  People have forgotten.  We went there because Al Qaeda, which were mostly Saudis, a few Egyptians and others had occupied an area of Afghanistan because it was a failed state and we went there to stamp them out.  Within six months of arriving there they left and we have been fighting somebody called the Taliban for eleven and a half years.  So until we have leadership in Washington, D.C. that understands that our military is to protect American interests at home and not be the police of the world, we're going to make these mistakes again and now we're talking about what could happen in Syria and Iran.  That is because today we'll make those same kinds of decisions and we need leaders who understand the past, who understand the history, who can move to a new direction in the future.

Lynch: If we're talking about foreign policy, Hillary Clinton more recently was Secretary of State.  How do you assess her role as Secretary of State?  Are we safer today?  Are we in a better position on the world stage than we were prior to her --

Schweitzer: I don't think a Secretary of State should be viewed about whether we're safe or not.  I can give her a lot of accolades because she spent a lot of time repairing some of the damage that had been done during the Bush administration around the world.  She also did some wonderful things in talking about what do we do in these communities around the world where we have been treating women like second class citizens?  And so she did some great things around the world.  But I don't think you should blame or give honor to the Secretary of State about whether we get into a war or not.  That is a decision the president makes and frankly this discussion about whether we were going to involve ourselves in a civil war in Syria made no sense at all.  They're not even oil producers.  I can't figure out what our vested interest was there.  It was a civil war in a place that hasn't been our friend.

Borg: Let me get back -- you were just talking about Secretary Clinton elevating the status of women perhaps, or at least promoting that around the world.  Many think that the time and the stars are aligned right now for a woman president of the United States.  I'm also mindful you said Bush, Bush, Clinton, maybe again Clinton.  How do you weigh the importance of electing a woman president?  Do you think that gender is important or are other things more important than that?

Schweitzer: I think it might be.  I think a woman president might be the right time, the right place because you can't screw it up any worse than we've got it in Washington, D.C. and maybe a woman could get it right.  Maybe women can bring people together.  And so in a democratic primary where without the women who have been voting for democrats in majorities over the course of the last 30 years, democrats would be in the minority in most of the states and in Washington, D.C.  And so when supporters of a woman to be president say it's our time, I don't disagree with them.

Borg: Well, I’m going to follow up on something you just said.  You said, screwed up in Washington right now.  Well, that indicts President Obama.

Schweitzer: Sure.  It does and it also indicts the entrenched members of Congress that we have.  We send people to Washington, D. C., good people from every one of our states and then they arrive there and they find out that you're not going to get anything done until you can get re-elected two or three times and then maybe you're going to be chair of some subcommittee.  And so they go along, get along and the first thing you know they find out that in order to get re-elected you have to take more money from the special interests than the other side --

Borg: But what has President Obama done wrong in not being able to correct that?

Schweitzer: Well, he's had a difficult time because he has had an entrenched group of congressmen who say, you know, presidents come and presidents go and we're still going to be here.  It's about surviving themselves.  And so he arrived in a place where people said from the very beginning, our number one job is to make sure you don't get re-elected.  Well, he got re-elected and now they're saying, our number one job is to make sure that the next president is our friend, not you.

Henderson: You decided against running for the U.S. Senate from Montana in 2014.  Why?  And then you have, during your time here in Iowa, sort of expressed a keen dislike for Washington, D.C.  With that much of a distaste for the politics there, why ever would you even consider running for president?

Schweitzer: Damn good question.  Not sure I have.  Not sure I will.  The only way you're going to move Washington, D.C. is at the chief executive level.  The entrenched interests of Congress, and this is an indictment of both the democrats and republicans, are such that you raise money from the special interests, you give them their special little flavors and you get re-elected again and again and again.

Henderson: So as president what would you do to change that?

Schweitzer: Well, to start with, if you look at my record in Montana, I was elected without taking a penny of special interest money.  I didn't take any PAC money when I was elected or re-elected.  I didn't demand at the other side, I didn't even challenge them not to.  But I said this, that if I'm elected no one will buy their way to the front of the line.  I'm not suggesting that when people make those contributions that they are automatically going to get something.  But they do buy a place at the front of the line.  They do get a special venue because they were the lobbyists, they were the ones who put up those special dollars.  And so when -- I can tell you this, even though I was elected with, re-elected with 66% of the vote in Montana I was the least popular governor in the history of Montana among the lobbyists because they didn't have a place at the front of the line.  I would say to them, look, I know you have an opinion, but you're paid to have that opinion.  I want the opinions of the people, not the special interests.

Henderson: So, public financing of all federal campaigns?

Schweitzer: It would be a good start.  We have the best government money can buy.  honestly this is kind of interesting, Wal-Mart went down to Mexico here a few years ago and they said, we want to build a new Wal-Mart and the people around there said, well gee, that's where our ancestors are buried.  So they spread $22 million around among a bunch of politicians and they got in really big trouble, not in Mexico for bribery, they got in trouble because of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that we passed here in the United States in 1977.  If you're going to give money to an elected official with expectation of favorable treatment it is illegal to give it to anybody anywhere in the world except to American politicians.  What could go wrong? 

Lynch: Governor, like a lot of folks who come to Iowa to kick the tires, you're relatively unknown at this point and people might be wondering where you're coming from.  Are you coming from the left or the right?  You're pro-choice but anti-gun control, you favor coal as an energy source, you're not held in high regard by environmentalists yet you oppose the Iraq war, you want to expand Medicare for more Americans.  Where are you on the political spectrum?  Are you --

Schweitzer: I'm good with money.  I can tell you this, in eight years as governor, every single year I was governor we cut more taxes and built the largest budget surpluses in history because I challenged every expense.  We didn't cut programs.  I ran it like a ranch.  Every single program that we had we made more efficient.  And yes, I support American energy production because I don't want to send another person to an oil war anywhere in the world, any time in the future and that means wind in Iowa, it means sun in the southwest, it means oil, it means gas, it means energy conservation.  It means battery technology and it means also domestic coal production because that is something like 40% of our electricity.

Lynch: That worked in a state and, no offense, but a relatively small state.  Can you run Washington like a ranch?

Schweitzer: Well, have you found anybody on the republican side or the democratic side that will challenge expenses in Washington, D.C.?  They can't even write a budget.  They just made a deal, perfect.  They had to make a deal because neither republicans or the democrats liked the sequester because sequester said, we're going to have to cut spending.  The republicans didn't like it because they were going to have to cut defense spending and democrats didn't like it because they were going to have to cut entitlements. So instead of actually cutting or challenging any expenses they came together and said, we'll just spend more money.

Henderson: In listing what you are contending are your attributes it is sort of curious to me that you might be presenting yourself as the Mitt Romney of Montana.  Will that sell in the Democratic Party?

Schweitzer: The Mitt Romney of Montana?

Henderson: A governor who is a democrat in a red state, a governor who knows how to cut budgets, those are ideas that Mitt Romney advanced from the opposite view, that he was an outlier in a democratic state.

Schweitzer: Well, I don't know that I'm presenting myself in much that way.  People view Montana from the outside and say we're a red state.  We're kind of a state of libertarians whether we're democrats, republicans or independents we think that there is a role for government and it stops at the mailbox.  We think we need some protections from the government but we don't want them involved in our day-to-day lives.  And we think that we ought to have government stay out of our personal lives.

Borg: Let's follow up on that as it relates to an issue, immigration.  You're an inland state, you don't have a border problem.  But how would you propose to solve the nation's immigration dilemma?

Schweitzer: Let's start with this, all four of my parents were immigrants and homesteaded in Montana and the residents of Montana, the ones who were already there, the Crow and the Cheyenne, the Salish and the Kootenai, the Assiniboine and the Sioux, they somehow managed to welcome these new people there.  There were conflicts but they welcomed these new people here.  This country has been built by immigrants.  Everyone sitting around this table and most of the people that are listening right now, their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were immigrants --

Borg: That's history but what now?  What now?

Schweitzer: What now is we have got to embrace a way of bringing these people from, I don't know, 12 or 15 million people out of the shadows, get them the opportunity to have a pathway to citizenship so that they can begin paying taxes and become legitimate citizens of the United States.  We have done this in waves over the last 150 years and it's time to do it again.

Lynch: President Bush tried on immigration, President Obama has tried and they haven't been successful. One of the areas that Obama has been successful is in health care.  But you aren't really a cheerleader for Obamacare, you've talked about needing to do more.  What is your health care plan?

Schweitzer: Well, it was kind of strange that we had such a complicated health care -- here's our problem -- our problem is that we pay 18% of our GDP for health care in the United States and our competitors around the world are paying somewhere between 9% and 11%.  And even though we pay almost twice as much for our health care as the rest of the industrialized world, we rank just behind Costa Rica in 37th place in outcome.  And the reason is, is that, here are the drivers -- we have five times as many procedures per patient.  Why is that?  It's because we have a for-profit system and so when you go to see your clinic or your doctor or whatever they say, yeah we might as well check you out for this and something else while you're there and you’re not going to ask the question because it's third party paid.  It is either paid for by the government or it is paid by private insurance.  When you buy your car you make sure you only buy the options that you need.  So we have five times as many procedures, it's not making us any healthier.  We pay twice as much for our prescription drugs and our medical devices as the rest of the world.  Why?  Because these special interests own Congress and we're not even legally allowed, the American people cannot even negotiate to buy our medicine.  We have to pay retail when the government buys it.

Henderson: So how do you fix it?

Schweitzer: And then the third thing is, is that we pay roughly 18% of the cost of our health care in America isn't health care, it is paying insurance companies.  So instead what they did is they guarantee the profits, it's in the law, guarantee the profits of the insurance companies of 16%.  We had 30 million people who couldn't buy insurance because they had pre-existing conditions.  That's not right.  We were discriminating against women.  I think in 47 states we can charge higher premiums for women than we do men.  That should be against the law.  And worse yet, about 25% of the insurance policies that are offered in this country, you think you have insurance but then when somebody in your family actually gets sick you find out there's a cap annually, there's a cap on lifetime and just at the point where you get to $40,000 or $50,000 of expenditures you go broke.

Borg: Are we headed in the right direction now?

Schweitzer: No, what we should have done is we should have passed national insurance law that says you can't discriminate against women, you can't discriminate against people with a pre-existing condition and you have to have an insurance policy that actually insures you.  Do that, number one.  And then say to the citizens of America, listen, you either buy private insurance from whoever you want and it is actual insurance where you can buy your way into Medicare, that's it.  That's the bill and we just cut the cost of health care in America by 20%.  Instead we wrote a bill that was written by the insurance companies, endorsed by the pharmaceutical companies, it's not going to challenge the expenses and all we are doing as taxpayers is moving our taxpayer dollars to Washington, D.C. and distributing it to the insurance companies.

Henderson: Given that speech you just gave, is that why you have called President Obama a corporatist?

Schweitzer: Yes because --

Henderson: What does corporatist mean?

Schweitzer: Corporatist means that the corporate interests were able to go to Washington, D.C. and get the bill that they wanted, one, where the taxpayers of this country, us, the individuals are now guaranteeing the profits of the health insurance companies.  This health care bill can be fixed.  Look, as you know in Iowa you sort of accepted Medicaid expansion but in half the states in the country people that make less than 133% of federal poverty were supposed to be covered under Medicaid, their states didn't accept it so there is no safety net.  Why didn't we just allow them to buy their way into Medicare and if they can't afford it we'll help them?  Why didn't we allow any citizen, even if you can afford it, to buy your way into Medicare?

Borg: Before we run out of time I want to get back to Afghanistan because you have been critical of Iraq and Afghanistan.  But we're there now, we're drawing down but it sounds like we've got a problem right now with President Karzai about how we retain troops there.  How should America extract itself from Afghanistan?

Schweitzer: With helicopters, today.  Listen, Karzai, I've met Karzai in Afghanistan, his brother is the biggest drug smuggler in the world.  They grow opium there and then they ship that heroin all over the world --

Borg: You're saying get out and get out at any cost and come home.

Schweitzer: Absolutely.  Our generals are saying, well, we can't leave right now, we're kind of entrenched.  They live in the Stone Age there.  They didn't attack us.  They don't even have any way of getting to the United States.  So the point here is this, if you ask a general whether you need to stay in a place to fight a war a little longer it is a little like asking your barber whether you need a hair cut.  Of course you need a hair cut he's going to say.

Henderson: Governor, you spent some time in the 1980s in the Middle East in a couple of countries there working on irrigation projects.

Schweitzer: That's right.

Henderson: How does that color your foreign policy view?

Schweitzer: Well, I think I understand the Middle East a lot better than many people who are in Washington, D.C. because I actually lived and worked and did business in Libya, Saudi Arabia and I have traveled the entire Middle East. I understand these notions of Sunni versus Shia and who the Wahabi's are and how the Saudi royal family first seized power and how they built this alliance with the United States.  Many people don't understand that we have had the American military in Saudi Arabia propping up the Saudi royal family for the last 60 years.

Henderson: Should that end?

Schweitzer: Well, actually it is going to end.  And let me tell you why.  Because during the next five years we'll be producing so much oil in Canada, the United States and Mexico, North America will be the largest exporter of oil and producer of oil and there's no reason why the United States ought to prop up any of the regimes in the Middle East because they become our competitors in selling oil worldwide.

Borg: How does that relate to what we're doing with Iran right now in our relations?

Schweitzer: Yeah, during the last 60 years our most important alliances in the Middle East were Saudi Arabia because we have their oil concession and Israel.  Israel will continue to be our main focus in the Middle East.  But the Arabs and the Persians have disliked and distrusted each other for 3,000 years.  So as long as we're allied with the Saudis and the Kuwaitis and the Bahrainis and the Egyptians then the enemy, the natural enemy was in Iran.  And of course we staged the coup that took their elected prime minister out in 1953 and so now the Iranians are kind of a little distrustful from us because we actually installed the Shah of Iran who took their oil from them for 40 years.  So here's our opportunity, our opportunity is to build an alliance that includes the Iranians, get them to stop their nuclear ambitions, explain to them we could be their friends as well but they're going to have to act like good neighbors.

Borg: Okay. One last question before we say goodbye.  How soon will we see you back in Iowa again?  I think that you have vowed that you're going to visit all 99 counties --

Schweitzer: No, I have said that it's on my bucket list to make it to all 99 counties and someday I will.

Henderson: Before 2016?

Schweitzer: Well, you know what, that's a tall order, 99 -- of course, Grassley does it every year doesn't he.

Borg: Yes, he does.  Thank you very much for being with us today.

Schweitzer: Thanks for being here.

Borg: And we'll continue this edition of Iowa Press in just a moment as Des Moines Register Political Writer Jennifer Jacobs joins us.

Contact the Iowa Press staff online at our website or email us at iowapress@iptv.org.

Borg: Des Moines Register Political Writer Jennifer Jacobs joining us now.  Jennifer, Governor Schweitzer seemed to me to be reticent about admitting any political interest in Iowa.  So what is a mining company executive doing -- he says I was just invited and I go where I'm invited.

Jacobs: Right.  He does seem to be straddling that fine line between wanting to be a player in presidential politics and being willing to throw spears at Hillary Clinton and President Obama but yet not wanting to admit that he has White House aspirations.

Henderson: I don't think a candidate or a potential candidate would throw elbows that sharp if they didn't really be truly thinking about running for president.  He had some real barbs to throw at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and I don't think you would do that unless you were seriously considering being a contender to the throne.

Lynch: Sometimes speaking too frankly can come back and bite you but it seems to me that Governor Schweitzer maybe is appealing to that segment of democrats who have, were very enthused with President Obama eight years ago, a little less so in 2012 and as we've seen recently in polls his popularity is sliding and maybe Governor Schweitzer thinks there is an opening there to say, look, I'm not like that guy, I know the truth.

Borg: I'm glad you mentioned the polls because, Jennifer, you have actually done some measuring of Governor Schweitzer and other political candidates.

Jacobs: Right, we showed where there is a door open for certain candidates and number one is Hillary Clinton, she's fantastically popular with Iowa democrats and even amongst Iowans of all political leanings she has a 50% favorability rate, that is pretty amazing.  And on the republican side it is Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, who is the most popular on the GOP side followed by Mike Huckabee.

Borg: And did you notice that when I asked him about the gender of a presidential candidate, there, Jim, he endorsed Hillary Clinton in a pretty strong way.

Lynch: He endorsed the idea that a woman can't screw things up any worse than they are screwed up now.  And I'm not sure that's a real endorsement, it's sort of a backhanded compliment.  But, again, it was an indication that he's not willing to make the commitment that he is a candidate.  I mean, he's sort of saying like, well maybe women will have the advantage in 2016, they will appeal to the voters, that it's time.

Henderson: But he did articulate something that was important to the Obama candidacy.  He articulated the fact that voters are looking ahead, they're not looking behind and that is the Achilles heel of the Clinton candidacy because she came out here in 2007 and sold herself as sort of the way to continue those great years of the 1990s when her husband was president.  So unless she comes up with some way to convince voters that she is forward thinking, somebody like a Brian Schweitzer who is almost positioning himself the same way that Barack Obama did in 2007, could have an opening here.

Borg: And Jennifer, that brings up Obama's presidential approval rating in your polls because in hearing Schweitzer criticizing, if you will, the Obama administration, he's not taking a big chance is he, a big risk?

Jacobs: Not at all, no.  President Obama's approval rating, job approval in Iowa is in the tank.  Iowans are very displeased with him and that could mean something.  It's more than just showing that the state that he carried three times is displeased with him.  It could have an impact on future elections, possibly setting the stage for a republican comeback.

Borg: And on that approval rating, how do you think, Jim, that affects 2014, a year from now and 2016 for democrats?

Lynch: In 2014 I think the President is somewhat of a drag on democratic candidates across the state.  From the top down, Bruce Braley, the Governor's race, all the races I think President Obama and Obamacare are a hurdle for them that they're going to have to get over to be successful. 

Henderson: Honestly, why do you think Tom Harkin's not seeking re-election in 2014?  I think he looked in the grave and saw that this was for democrats what 2006 was for republicans.  It's going to be a horrible hole to be in to be running against really bad approval numbers for the President's handling of the government and the economy.

Borg: Just a quick answer, we're running out of time, Jennifer.  Are we going to see Governor Schweitzer back soon do you think?  He declined to say.

Jacobs: Oh very much so.  I mean, he has been stressing that he cannot wait to get to all 99 counties.  I think we will see him very soon.

Borg: Thanks for your insights.  And next week on Iowa Press we're convening more Iowa journalists, reviewing the past year's news that will be carrying implications for the New Year.  And I'm inviting you to eavesdrop.  Iowa Press next week, same times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Best wishes from all of us here at Iowa Public Television and Happy New Year.


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