"We spawned Osama bin Laden": Brian Schweitzer isn't done talking

2016 presidential wannabe Brian Schweitzer unloads to Salon on neocons, inequality and why we need single-payer

Published June 19, 2014 6:13PM (EDT)

Brian Schweitzer   (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Brian Schweitzer (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

In a new profile in National Journal, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer — a self-styled populist Democrat who has long been rumored to be planning a run for the White House in 2016 — says that Southern men "are a little effeminate" and that outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sets off his "gaydar" to around "60-70 percent." He also criticizes Sen. Dianne Feinstein's relationship with the NSA, implementing a metaphor in which the influential California Democrat is likened to a prostitute. As you might imagine, these comments have not gone unnoticed.

When Salon called Schweitzer earlier this week (before the National Journal profile was published), though, the two-term governor and current MSNBC contributor had other things than effeminacy and the sex trade on his mind. In a wide-ranging interview conducted just after Schweitzer had appeared on "The Ed Show," Schweitzer sounded off on the latest news from Iraq, why the Middle East isn't America's problem, why we should think twice before trusting the judgment of Hillary Clinton, how President Obama mucked-up healthcare reform and why he decided to speak at Mitt Romney's annual donor gala. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

How've you enjoyed your new gig on MSNBC, and being a media guy in general?

I’m supposedly a media guy, but I’m not reporting any news. I’m saying what I think about things. I’ve done that most of my life. I did it for a time as governor of Montana. I was governor for eight years. Before that I was in private business. Now I’m in private business again, but this gives me an opportunity to say to a new group of people what I think about things.

Which issues have you been most fired up about discussing with this new, larger audience?

Well, I’ve been fired up for some time, if you’ve heard my discussion [on MSNBC]. I lived in the Middle East. I lived in Libya for a little less than a year, Saudi Arabia for about seven [years] during the '80s. I was living in Saudi Arabia, working in Saudi Arabia, while Iraq was fighting its war with Iran. I fully understood, like everybody else in the Middle East, that Iraq was the tip of the spear for the rest of our allies — Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait — and while Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, let’s be honest: the Saudi Royal Family, the Kuwaiti Royal Family, the Egyptian leaders ... there’s a limited number of good guys that are running countries in the Middle East.

But the one thing everybody seems to agree on among our Sunni allies is that the most dangerous actor in the neighborhood was Iran. So Iraq lost about a million people and Iran lost about a million people in that conflict; but Iraq was keeping Iran busy. So few people would listen to [former Sen.] Robert Byrd or, for that matter, this rancher in Montana who was screaming at the top of their lungs to anyone who would listen, “What are you doing? Iraq is what’s keeping the Middle East stable right now because they’re occupying Iran’s time. The enemy of your enemy is your friend!” So then we went into Iraq under completely false pretenses, but any of those folks who supported going in either knew, or should’ve known, it didn’t make any sense.

It does feel a bit as if we're leaving a dream period when we thought we could just forget about Iraq —

No! No, no, no. Let’s think about this for a little bit. I don’t want to hear revision history from Lindsey Graham or George Bush people or Wolfowitz or Perle. I don’t want to hear anybody who supported going into Iraq saying, “Oh, well, gee, if only we would’ve stayed there longer …” You’ve lost your right to give me an opinion because you were so wrong and so many people lost their lives.

I’m passionate about this. The second day I was governor of Montana, I got in a Blackhawk helicopter and I went to my first funeral for a young man who came back dead [from Iraq]. The day that I was sworn in, I had no idea that I would be governor during the longest period of war in the history of the state. I had no idea that I would go to more of these funerals than any governor in the history of Montana. And at every single one of them I seethed with anger — anger at those people in Washington, D.C., who decided to send these people to their deaths, and maimed people. Because it was a false mission from the beginning ... I looked around during these funerals, and I saw the grieving families, and I hugged the grieving mothers, and I did everything I could do to comfort them. I didn’t see those [pro-war] senators [at the funeral]. I didn’t see those people at the Department of Defense who sent them [to Iraq]. I didn’t see them at those funerals, helping those families get back on their feet.

And now to have the same cats in some cases, and the same kind of cats in other cases, trying to tell us why it is that we ought to go back to Iraq, and sort of defend those lines that were written at the end of WWI, separating the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds, and calling it a place called Iraq and calling it other countries ... these borders only make sense because we were dividing up the oil assets of the Middle East at the time. And [intervening in the region] only makes sense if we need the oil assets from the Middle East in the future — and we don’t. We are moving rapidly to energy independence.

Since you mentioned the basically artificial nature of many of the borders between states in the Middle East, I wanted to ask you if you agree with those who want to revisit a plan Vice President Biden put forward back when he was senator that would've essentially partitioned Iraq, allowing each group — Sunni, Shia and Kurds — to run their own affairs?

Biden wasn’t wrong at all. You could’ve asked me and I would’ve given you the same [answer]. The only glue that kept Iraq together was a strong-armed dictator that was willing to kill you if you crossed him. He used the chemical weapons that we gave him the capacity to make on the Iranians — and for that we cheered him, apparently — and when he starting using them on the Kurds we said, “Oh, now, come on! That’s not very nice!”

This [conflict] goes back a long time. The difference between Sunni and Shiite goes back a long, long time. The Sunnis believe that, after Mohammed died, they ought to be able to, as an Islamic nation, elect a new leader of Islam. The Shiites said at the time, and ever since, “No, you can’t elect it. It has to be a direct descendant of Mohammed.” That’s the key difference between Sunni and Shiite. Within the Sunnis there are the Wahhabis — [who] are very conservative within Saudi Arabia [and] who spawned Osama bin Laden — who were outraged that an infidel army (us, the United States) was propping up ... the Saudi Royal Family ... To have an infidel army in the country that protects the hajj cities is what was making these Wahhabis crazy. We spawned Osama bin Laden. By the way, we also funded him when he was called the Mujahedin and was in Afghanistan fighting the Russians, but I digress …

So you support the idea of partitioning the country?

Here’s what I think about it: Put your pencil away! They can partition their own country. We’re not going to partition them. Build your energy supplies in the United States; then you don’t need the Persian Gulf; then you don’t need those oil resources. Then it becomes the problem of the people who live in the Middle East and those people who need to buy [the Middle East's oil] — the Asians and the Europeans. Let them worry about it.

How do you feel Obama has been handling the drumbeat to get involved again with Iraq, this time because of ISIS?

I don’t know. The drums are beating and I see the guys holding the sticks like Jon McCain and Wolfowitz and all the Bushies. I think I don’t hear that music [laughs]. Put down the instruments. You’re done playing the music. Some people listened to you one time before. What was it, 79 senators voted to go to war and 250 or so members of the house who voted to go in Iraq? They didn’t listen to those of us who knew better last time. So all of you who played that music, put the instruments down. We don’t want to hear that anymore.

Do you feel the same way about people who maybe weren’t playing it, but they were dancing to it?


Do you feel that supporting that war should sort of be disqualifying on foreign policy issues, forever?

To have been so wrong so recently about a thing and a place — and now offering opinions on the same place — I think so. I think you’ve lost your credibility. Here’s the way I see it: If somebody lights fire to your barn and all your livestock get out, they don’t get to complain because the livestock are eating their corn. They burned the barn down!

I got to say, this sounds to me like you’re talking about Hillary Clinton. Are you talking about Hillary Clinton?

No. There you go. I haven’t mentioned anybody’s name; I actually mentioned Graham, and McCain, the Bushies, Wolfowitz ...

That's true. You only named Republicans.

You take any particular senator who voted for the war. That’s fine. You can do that. You could’ve said the name Chuck Schumer. You could’ve said the name Max Baucus. I can tell you the names you couldn’t say, I almost have them memorized, starting with Robert Byrd and Debbie Stabenow ... There’s a long list of those who didn’t vote to go to war. Some of them who voted for it have said publicly, “Look, I’m not perfect. I make mistakes.” ... Probably the best thing you can do is say, "I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes. I’ll try not to make them again.”

What did you think of Clinton's recent statement that she didn't publicly rescind her support for the war sooner because she wanted to keep faith with the troops?

The way I [kept faith with the troops], I would hug a mom, a father. I would hold a son or a daughter in my arms before, during and after a funeral. I refused to say the things to them that politicians like to say: “Your son died making this country free," as if it was WWII or the Revolutionary War. I wouldn’t say that because I didn’t believe it. What I did was, I hugged them and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what God’s plan was. I don’t know why this happened to your family, but here,” and I would write my personal cellphone number on a piece of paper and I would put it in their hand and close their hand on it and say to them, “If I could help you in any way — tomorrow, next week, next month, next year — call me. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. I’ll help you get through this, if I can.”

You feel that's the most a politician can do?

That’s all I could do as governor. I didn’t have a vote. What I had was a National Guard [unit] ... The best I could do was make sure they had all the equipment and all the training that they could to maximize the chance they would return in one piece. That’s all I could do as a governor.

To move away from foreign policy, I want to ask you about economic inequality. How do you approach that issue?

Here’s something we know for sure: One of the great equalizers is education. To make education available to everybody is one of the most important things we can do ... It starts with an early education system. Secondly, it requires a system so that higher education is economically available for all of this country ... [I]t starts with giving opportunities for education, but it doesn’t stop there.

This discussion about raising the minimum wage? Of course we should. In Montana, we raised the minimum wage already and it’s higher than the federal rate, [which] needs to be higher. We also have to create domestic jobs, again, in manufacturing, in basic industry, in transportation. That’s where energy independence once again comes around. Building this transmission lines from wind turbines in the Midwest to the coast, building these new hybrid and electric cars in America, designed by American engineers, and built by American workers. Creating an energy system that produces electricity and natural gas cheaper than the rest of the world to attract those manufacturing jobs that went to Asia back to the United States so that we have a manufacturing class again — that’s the way we get to [reversing] income inequality.

And while we’re on the subject: I’ve got a few shingles put aside because I don’t really have a pension program because I’ve worked for myself for my whole life, except for the eight years I was governor ... So I have a little Scottrade account. I buy and sell shares based on what I think the future is going to be, and I study it the best I can. In some ways, I’m knowledgeable; in some ways, I’m in a crap shoot. But here’s what I do know: If I buy a stock in January and sell it in May, then I pay a full — not a capital gain, but a full — tax rate, which is going to be well over 30 percent, state and federal [included].

But if I’m a hedge fund manager, I can pay this way: The rich guy with a pension gives me 2 percent to manage the money. They give me a million dollars and say “manage my money.” So I say, “Fine, I’m going to do a 2-20. I get 2 percent; no matter what happens, I get $20,000 to manage your money this year, and then I get 20 percent of what I make for you." Then [I] go to work. [I] might buy and sell the same stock 20 times in a day, or maybe 20 times in a month, or maybe [I] hold it for four months. But at any rate, at the end of the day, [I] pay a capital gain as if [I'd] held it for a long period of time like I would have to do. Now, back in the '50s, we carved that thing out for those pension managers, those private equity people. That’s not fair, and that’s what Buffet is talking about — him paying a lower tax rate than a secretary. He’s right.

Why is it that our pharmaceutical companies and major corporations in America aren’t really clamoring to change our tax code? Yeah, yeah, people say we have a 35 percent federal tax rate for corporations and that’s higher than most other countries. You’d think the corporations would be clamoring [for change], wouldn’t you? And since they mostly own Congress, you’d think they would get Congress to change [the tax code]. But they don’t, because they don’t actually pay it. They outsource their income and they insource their costs, so many of these corporations pay little or no federal income tax in the United States ...

I spoke at the Romney event this last Friday. It was tough territory for me, but I didn’t back off. I walked in and it started out. I explained how we run Montana. How we hadn’t raised any taxes. We invested more money in education. How we reformed our healthcare system in Montana and we ran our government more efficiently. Not cutting programs, just running it more efficiently. And then I went on and I said to them, “As I look around the room, raise your hand if you are a director or a major shareholder of a corporation with more than $2 billion market cap.” Lots and lots of hands went up ... From $2 billion and above, almost all of them are self-insured when it comes to health insurance. Nearly every state, including Montana and most every state that you come from, we are self-insured for our employees when it comes to healthcare.

Since most of the corporations in America figured out that you don’t want to give 15-20 percent of your healthcare dollars away to health insurance companies, and most of the states have figured that out. Did it surprise you that when the federal government decided to expand healthcare to people who didn’t already have it, that we turned to the insurance companies and gave them 20 percent? Didn’t that strike you as odd, that all the corporations and states have figured it out but the federal government couldn’t?

But there are a lot of people who say that was the only way to get anything done —

Here’s my point that I’m gonna make to you: I don’t think there was anybody in the room [at the Romney event] that voted for Democrats. But as I was explaining the single-payer system to them in that way, they were nodding their heads. And then I said to them, “Back in the '90s when most of you in the room thought it was a good idea to have free trade all over the world ... I was in Montana and I was raising cattle and wheat and barley and other crops and [said,] 'Oh, my God! If that border was going to open from Saskatchewan and Alberta and all that cheap grain and all those cheap cattle were going to flow across the border, I may lose my farm.' But nobody was listening to me because I was told that I needed to become more efficient, that free trade would create efficiencies, and if you find that on your farm you can’t grow wheat as inexpensively as they can in Alberta or Saskatchewan, then you would switch crops. You’ll find something. That’s the order. That’s free trade. So you all clapped your hands and got free trade passed. But why did you allow the pharmaceutical industry to carve themselves out so that everything made in Canada and the United States could freely move back and forth except one thing: pharmaceuticals? So now in Canada, like the rest of the industrialized world, they pay a third or even 10 percent of what we do for medicine, and you did nothing about it ...

As I looked around the room in the eyes of these people who wouldn’t necessarily agree with me on anything, I [had] just described what we got wrong in the healthcare bill and how we can fix it, and I wasn’t seeing people who were disagreeing with me. There was one. He worked for a pharmaceutical company ... He chewed my ass afterwards. But for the most part the rest of them didn't. I said to this guy as he was chewing my ass, “I thought you were a capitalist. I thought you, being a capitalist, you would agree with all those other people who told me that if I went out of business raising wheat because somebody could raise it cheaper, that that was just the way it works with free trade. Apparently you’re not a capitalist, or you’re just a crony Capitalist. I’m not sure.”

I'm not sure I'm picking up on what the takeaway here is supposed to be — that someone like you can talk to conservative, rich ones at that, and they'll listen?

Here’s [the] takeaway: Something they apparently can’t do in Washington, D.C., anymore is ... talk to people you disagree with. You can’t spend time with people who aren’t like you because then they will call you a RINO or a DINO. Republicans don’t wanna talk to Democrats; Democrats don’t want to talk to Republicans. They don’t want to hear our ideas, and we don’t want to hear theirs. We’re not going to solve the problems that we have in our country if that’s the way we’re going to do our business. I can tell you, in Montana, that when I go down to have a pint of beer or a cup of coffee downtown, or when we have family get-togethers, we don’t all agree on things but we talk about things. And I learn things. And sometimes I learn enough that it shifts my position.

Is this a D.C. thing, though, or is it a Republican thing? Because I heard Barack Obama say a lot of this stuff back in 2008, and look where we are now.

Yeah. I know. We passed a healthcare bill that didn’t fix the problems that we have without a single Republican vote.

I don't want to put words in your mouth, but what I'm hearing right now is that, basically, these problems persist because Obama wasn't up to the task.

What I’ll say is this: I paid very close attention to how [Obamacare] was written and I was very frustrated because it didn’t come out in February and March and get voted on when [Democrats] had 60 senators and a majority in the House — before all the haters coalesced in the House — [and] when Obama had better than 60 percent job approval. Everybody knew and understood in politics [that] you need to get [big things] done the first 90 days. They talked about it before he was elected, they talked about it after he was elected and before he was sworn in. But this bill got grabbed ... it got grabbed by which committee that tied it up for a full year? Do you remember?

Finance, was it?

Finance committee. Who wrote this bill? It was written by the "Gang of Six" and their former staffers who were lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies, led by Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus ... [The bill] finally came out a year later and it was laid on the table and it was "take it or leave it." People who came into those hearings and wanted to be heard about why we’re not including a single-payer ... Do you remember what happened to them?

They were told to sit down and shut up?

They were actually physically removed from the room. So Obamacare is a misnomer, for better or worse. It was actually written by the Senate Finance Committee and laid on the table and they said, "Take it or leave it." Well, in politics, sometimes you can’t always get what you want. But what we got was a bill that was proposed by the Republicans and implemented in Massachusetts called Romneycare.

So is single-payer something you think Democrats can return to and push for sometime in the near future? Because a lot of people feel like they had their shot and won't be able to return to healthcare reform for a while.

I don’t know. After I got done explaining [at the Romney event] what we need to do to finish the job of a healthcare system that is competitive with the rest of the world, I said to my business people, "We pay 18-19 percent of our GDP for our healthcare and our industrial competitors around the world pay 10-11 percent. Since it’s nearly 20 percent of our GDP and we’re paying twice as much, we have a 10 percent differential. They get a differential in our efficiency in producing things in the United States. Until we close that gap, we are at a deficit to our competitors." So then I laid it out how you fix it, and then I turned to them and said, “Look, I heard at the beginning here that you’re almost all Republicans. I’ve been hearing from Republicans that you don’t like the Affordable Care Act as it is. You’re saying you want to get rid of it or change it. Well, here’s the changes we need. Go do it! Go do it!”

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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