MyDD Conversation with MN-Sen Candidate Ford Bell
by Jonathan Singer, Mon Mar 06, 2006 at 10:13:49 PM EST
On Monday morning, I spoke with Ford Bell, one of of two leading contenders for the Democratic senatorial nomination in the Minnesota (the other being Amy Klobuchar, with whom we spoke a couple of weeks ago -- read the interview here or listen to it here [a 15.1 megabyte .mp3 file]).
On the day before party caucuses, Ford, who is still very much in the race despite my mistake on a post last week, and I spoke about a number of topics, including Iraq, healthcare, and Social Security. You can listen to the interview here (warning: a 15.7 megabyte mp3) or read the rush transcript below.
Jonathan Singer: What's the most important issue this year?
Ford Bell: Well, if I had to pick the most important issue, it would be the war.
Singer: And why would you pick the war?
Bell: This was a war we were misled into. We were misled. We never should have gotten into this. This had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. This has nothing to do with our security. We have legitimate security interests to protect our country from terrorism, and it wasn't Iraq that attacked us. This was one man's war. This was Bush's determination to go after Saddam Hussein.
First we were misled. Then this war was unbelievably badly planned. There was no civil plan ready to go the moment they achieved the fall of the government. If there had been a full civil plan, if the State Department had been allowed to develop that, we wouldn't have had the looting, which was the beginning of the cycle of violence, including, of course, the looting of the munitions dumps, which armed the insurgents with weapons that are still being used against us.
Now almost 2,300 brave young Americans have lost their lives and thousands more have been maimed for life in ways that we've never seem before. I mean we've had to create a new terminology in this war, politrauma. Here in Minneapolis, our V.A. hospital is one of six politrauma centers across the country. As a veteran said to me on the phone the other day, "You know, you can lose a leg or an arm and live a very happy life, but if you're brain is scrambled, your prospects are very limited." And too many of these young men and women have horrible neurologic injuries, in addition to the orthopedic and soft tissue injuries.
And nobody is counting how many Iraqis have died. Best estimates are it's over 100,000. And we've spent $300 billion, and what do we have? The Iraqis don't have continuous access to fresh water. They don't have continuous access to electrical power. Their medical infrastructure is not functioning. They don't have the security to go to their jobs. Unemployment is way over 30 percent. We were going to finance this war, as you remember, out of oil revenues, and the oil industry in Iraq isn't operating anywhere near its prewar levels. And on top of that, we haven't been able to achieve a government that's going to be stable going forward.
Singer: One Congressional Democrat, John Murtha, has put forward a plan to set a timeline to bring out troops from Iraq. Are you in favor that plan or a similar plan?
Bell: I think we need to get our troops out by the end of the year. I think we need to start right now. I said that when I got into the race a year ago. I said that the date should be after the elections in December of '05. Obviously that date has come and gone. Now I think we need to start right now to be sure that we get our troops out by the end of the year.
I think that starts by our sitting with the religious leaders in Iraq, who do have control over the insurgents, and say, "Look, we need a ceasefire. If we can get a ceasefire, we will withdraw our troops." We also need the constitution to be rewritten so it does not marginalize the Sunnis.
Singer: What happens if and when we leave? Does there need to be a UN or NATO force, of which we would be a part, or could we just leave it to internal forces, which may or may not tear the country further apart.
Bell: As Congressman Murtha has said, the problem is U.S. troops. We are catalysts for violence.
We do need some kind of international force, and I think that's very doable because the world has a vested interest in seeing Iraq stabilize. Israel does not want to see Iraq become West Iran, nor does Saudi Arabia. They have the same interest. No one wants to see Iran take over Iraq with its expanding potential nuclear power, and Iraq has the third highest oil reserves of any country in the world.
So the world has a vested interest, and I believe that the Arab League and the United Nations and NATO... if we work with our allies we can put together a force that will help maintain the peace. But the most important thing, of course, we have to have is to get the ceasefire, to get the insurgency to stop. And I think if they know we're leaving, we can get that done.
Singer: Let's move over to some domestic issues. You were trained in veterinary medicine. There are currently at least two, by my count, veterinarians in the Senate.
Bell: There are two, you're right.
Singer: What is it about your medicine that has created so many successful politicians in the past?
Bell: What is it about veterinarians?
Bell: I'll tell you what it is. The two veterinarians in the United States Senate are Republicans, I'm a Democrat, but I think there's a reason why veterinarians are way overrepresented, and it's because veterinarians are people who know how to get things done. It doesn't matter whether you're an oncologist like me or a small animal practitioner or in public health or doing cow/calf operations or whatever you're doing, veterinarians all have one thing in common: we have to get things done quickly, efficiently and effectively with very limited resources. And so we make the best use of our resources. That's why I think veterinarians get elected to the United States Senate.
Singer: Veterinary medicine isn't exactly tied into an issue like Medicare or Medicaid, but how well does your training prepare you to deal with complex medical-related legislation?
Bell: It doesn't, in that specific regard. Medicine is medicine, and I know medicine well, but I've also worked for ten years, as you know, as the president of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, which is on the campus of a major hospital here in town. It's a very large clinical cardiovascular research organization, and a community heart health organization, so I certainly had plenty of exposure - I worked with 60 physicians - and had plenty of exposure to the complexities of human medicine.
But when you talk about issues, I think the big domestic issue in this election is healthcare, and I think the public expects Democratic candidates, or wants, longs for Democratic candidates to lead on the war and on healthcare.
Singer: By almost any account, the Medicare prescription drug plan was poorly drawn up and its implementation has been poorly executed. If Minnesotans send you to Washington, what will you do to alleviate that problem?
Bell: The problem with the Medicare Part D is that it wasn't designed to help seniors, it was designed to provide additional benefits to insurance companies and drug companies, which is what our whole healthcare system does. I mean, insurance companies and drug companies are making record profits while 46 million Americans don't have healthcare.
I don't think you can just look at Medicare Part D, we need to look at the whole system. The whole system is not sustainable. We have a healthcare system that is sinking our Fortune 500 companies, it's sinking family-owned businesses on Main Street, it's sinking school districts. The city of New York has a $5-$10 billion long term healthcare liability. It's sinking municipalities. It's killing farmers. The number one issue here in Minnesota, I've talked to farmers, is healthcare costs. We're sending jobs overseas at a time we want to retain jobs. We've got a huge, huge segment of our population without healthcare at a time we're worried about bioterrorism and a time we're worried about avian influenza and other pandemics, when we want everybody to be covered with healthcare.
So we have a non-sustainable healthcare system. We have to address it. And yet there is a big silence coming out of Washington.
Singer: What would be the most efficient way of covering all Americans, including the 45 or 47 or however many million who do not have coverage currently?
Bell: The simplest way to do that is a single-payer universal healthcare system, which we already have, which works extremely well, which is Medicare. Seniors are extremely happy with Medicare. Its overhead is 2 percent, and as you know, the private health insurance industry, their overhead is 30 percent, which makes no sense at all.
My Republican opponent the other day in our debate said we can't afford a single-payer universal healthcare system. That's laughable. We can't afford the system we've got. We have the most expensive healthcare system in the world. $6,250 per person per year. That's two and a half times what countries like France pay every year. So it's laughable to say we can't afford a single-payer system. The reverse is true; we can't afford the system we've got. It's too expensive, it's too inefficient and doesn't cover people. And I'm the only candidate in this race who's called for a single-payer universal healthcare system
Singer: One final question on issues before we turn to politics. You talk about being able to afford some of these programs. There are long term structural deficits facing Social Security, in the single digits of trillions, but looking at Medicare and Medicaid, tens of [trillions], potentially. How can the federal government come up with money to balance that deficit?
Bell: The first part of your question related to Social Security. First of all, Social Security... there was a lot of scare tactics there that the President deployed last year trying to justify privatizing Social Security. The fact that Social Security might pay 75 percent of benefits by 2042 assumes the absolute worse case scenario. We can fix Social Security, we can take care of the problem simply with minor adjustments. We could increase the payroll tax from 12.5 percent to 15 percent over 70 years. We could raise the ceiling on income subject to payroll tax from $90,000 to whatever level we wanted. We could accelerate the increase in the age of eligibility. We could take 15 percent of the trust fund, instead of putting it into debt, we could invest it in index stock funds, 15 percent. There's all kinds of things we can do.
The issue about healthcare, again, first you've got to start with the biggest picture possible, which is what are our values and what are our priorities? And if our values and our priorities are that people should not spend their life savings and go broke trying to maintain their help, if our values and priorities are that we shouldn't be sending jobs to Canada, car making jobs to Canada, then we'll find a way to pay for healthcare.
Right off the bat, we spend $2 trillion every year on healthcare in this country now with a 30 percent overhead. What do we save if we had a new system? Let's say we save 20 percent. Well there's 20 percent times $2 trillion, right off the bat, in overhead costs we're going to get rid of over time - not overnight, but over time, because we'll have to obviously make incremental changes.
Secondly, primary care saves us a fortune. So the diabetic now doesn't go into the emergency room and say, "I think my blood glucose is a little off," he goes into emergency room because he's got a gangrenous ulcer on his leg that requires amputation. And who pays for that? We do. And then he's got to have rehabilitation and job training, and maybe he's never able to work, and then he's on welfare for the rest of his life. It costs us a fortune. Primary care saves us money. In the quarter ending June 30, Senator Frist's family company, HCA, spent in one quarter $460 million on charity care. And we pay for that. Hospitals spend $22 billion every year on charity care that we pay for. So there's a huge saving there.
Finally, there's a saving, of course, in prevention. We spend 70 percent of our healthcare dollars in this country treating preventable diseases, and we spend 5 percent on prevention. So there's three areas where we save a lot of money.
There has to be a revenue side, as well. But whether it's a payroll tax, user fee, whatever, we've got to address it on the revenue side. But we're not going to have any choice because the current healthcare system will collapse. So it's simply not sustainable, and we've got to address it.
Singer: What's your timeline between now and the party convention to woo delegates into your camp so you can gain the DFL nomination?
Bell: What's the timeline?
Singer: What will you be doing between now and then?
Bell: Well, first place, for the past few weeks, I've been calling personally caucus attendees - people who have attended caucuses in the past, all over Minnesota. I've called hundreds of them myself. Most of those people tell me no candidate has ever called them before. And so I've called those, members of my family have called.
I have found that the two biggest issues of this election are healthcare and the war, and those are my issues. I'm the only candidate who's come out for the deadline to get out of Iraq and I'm the only candidate who has said that we need a single-payer universal healthcare system.
And, we had the Rasmussen poll come out last week, which I'm able to tell everybody about, which shows me tied with Amy Klobuchar. Going back, way last fall, with the Zogby polls for the Wall Street Journal, with the Rasmussen polls, for all Amy's money, for the fact that she's run for office before and I haven't, she can't get away from me in the polls, and now we're tied, and that's because I'm talking about issues.
Singer: Why you and not her for the DFL nomination? Is it just the issues or are there other things?
Bell: In 2004, we lost the presidential election because we had a candidate who talked on the other hand, on the other hand, on the other hand. Nobody was quite sure what John Kerry stood for. He was trying to be on both sides of every issue.
I think Democratic voters want a candidate who takes a stand and is crystal clear and forthright on the issues, and that's the only reason I've gotten where I have, starting from zero, to get up to the top of this race is talking about issues. And I think that's what the voters want, and that's what it will take to beat Mark Kennedy. It isn't enough to talk about platitudes and bromides; we've got to be specific on the issues.
Singer: Last question. The progressive blogosphere has been looking at this race for some time as one that's very important to defend. Why should members of the progressive blogosphere, specifically... what would you like to say to them to get them more involved in your campaign.
Bell: I think if you look at the issues that I've talked about, I am the progressive candidate. Getting our troops out of Iraq. Working for peace. Making sure that every American has access to healthcare. I believe healthcare in the 21st century is a right, not a privilege. I'm committed to investing in renewable energy, which is our country's great opportunity, from the standpoint of national security, from the standpoint of mitigating global warming, and from the standpoint of helping revitalize rural communities here in Minnesota, where I'm the only candidate who's proposed a plan whereby we can retain ownership of the means of production of renewable energy - the biodiesel plants, the ethanol plants, the windfarms here in Minnesota - so those dollars turn the lights back on in Main Street communities across Minnesota. And I am the environmental candidate. My family has been associated with environmental causes for three generations, I've been very involved in the environment myself, and I am the only candidate who has talked at length about protection of key habitats in order to preserve biodiversity. Biodiversity along with global warming are the two big environmental challenges of the 21st century.
Singer: Well thank you so much for your time.
Bell: Jonathan, thank you.
Singer: Good luck in the caucuses tomorrow.
Bell: Thank you so much. Great to talk with you.
Singer: Likewise. Have a great day.
[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]