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'I've Been a Pain in the Rear for the Republican Party': A Conversation With Richard Painter

The former Bush ethics lawyer and current Senate hopeful talks about single-payer health care, his beef with the NRA, and why he's running as a Democrat.
Richard Painter minnesota senate

A few weeks ago, Richard Painter shocked the Minnesota political establishment by declaring that he would run for the United States Senate as a Democrat. Painter was the White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush and has become widely known as a centrist Republican commentator, in his own writing and on media outlets such as MSNBC. He's now a professor of corporate law at the University of Minnesota. It was no surprise when he announced an exploratory committee to compete for the Senate seat vacated by Al Franken earlier this year, but no one seems to have guessed that he'd switch parties.

Painter's campaign reflects the dilemma that center-right Republicans find themselves in thanks to the Trumpification of their party. They can run as anti-Trump Republicans and probably lose their primaries. Even if they win, then what? No reasonable person can look at the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and imagine the GOP exercising significant oversight of the executive branch. On the other hand, can a lifelong Republican win the trust of Democratic primary voters? Moreover, is Painter's shift conditional? Will he continue to support Democratic positions if he doesn't win?

Right now, in addition to his long-running criticisms of President Donald Trump, Painter is challenging Minnesota Senator Tina Smith from the left on health care, the environment, and corporate partnerships, especially over the new NFL stadium in Minneapolis. Smith was lieutenant governor of Minnesota before Governor Mark Dayton appointed her to replace Al Franken after the latter's resignation last December.

I recently sat down with Painter in a suburban coffee shop in Eagan, Minnesota. We talked about his decision to run as a Democrat, his core philosophy of government, and the grave threat that Painter says Trump and his Republican enablers pose to the future of American democracy.


I'd like to start by asking you to tell me the story of how you decided to run as a Democrat.

I have a paper trail that goes back to at least 1994. I've been writing, and that's what professors do. I challenge people to find an issue that I've really made a substantial change on. I recognize new evidence, for example, of even worse behavior in the banking sector than what I talked about in 1994. But because I worked for President Bush as the ethics lawyer, people assume that somehow everything else that was going on [then] was things that I would agree with.

So you haven't always been in lockstep with everything in the Republican Party platform?

There are quite a lot of differences. I have tended to speak out on the issues that are in the purview of my professional expertise—business ethics, corporate ethics, and government ethics. Until recently, I didn't get into what I think is the best health-care system, weighing in on abortion or something. In the past year or two, I started to weigh in on a lot of issues. People assume that, because the Republican president that I worked for had a different position on those issues, that back then I had a different position. That's just not the case. The whole paper trail is there. Search it and find it.

I'd love to hear more about your recent decision to run as a Democrat for the Senate, especially when everyone else was assuming you'd run as a Never-Trump Republican. Can you take me into that decision?

You got two problems with the Republican Party.

One is that the Trump White House has made it abundantly clear that they would spend enormous amounts of money to oppose anybody who doesn't support President Trump. I think it's going in an authoritarian direction with no oversight.

Problem No. 2 is that, when I actually go to take public positions on issues, and you go down the issues, the Republican Party has moved dramatically from where they were in earlier times. On environmental issues, on women's reproductive health, on a military spending, we can go through issue after issue after issue where the Republican Party—and it's a trend that started in 1980 with [President Ronald] Reagan, but it's accelerated even it it weren't for Trump—I'm running on a platform that's very different.

I grew up in Illinois. If you were in Chicago, you were a Democrat. You get out to the suburbs and central Illinois, you're a Republican. Hillary Clinton grew up as a Goldwater girl, she grew up in the 'burbs, that's just the way it was. I grew up there, then I went back to be a law professor at the University of Illinois, [so] of course I signed up to be a member of the Republican Party.

Let's talk a little about those issues. You've come out for single-payer health care, and even used the issue as a way to attack Senator Smith from her left. What does single payer mean to you? If you had the power to create a health-care system, what would you do?

I think it's in the interest of the consumer and also the small business owner to ask the question: How do we get the highest-quality health care for the best price? And also [how to] not have health-care issues interfere with the ability to start businesses? Right now, when you connect the employment relationship with health care, that means the big business has an enormous advantage over the small business. It makes no sense to connect those two. Why should health care be linked to your job?

So what's the better solution?

The advantage of having a single-payer system is that there's negotiating power vis-à-vis providers, drug companies, medical device companies. So I'm looking at it from an efficiency vantage point. I want best quality for best price.

Debates around the best kind of single-payer usually identify one of three models. There's Medicare for All. There's the public option model. And there's the Obamacare exchanges plus subsidies model.

I like Medicare for All. The advantage of Medicare for All, and we might not be able to do it right away, [but in] the ideal system, your employer would have nothing to do with your health care, just like your employer has nothing to do with your kids' education. Your employer doesn't send your kids to school. Your kids' health care shouldn't depend on your employer. So we separate that relationship.

And of course that may relieve the employer of a lot of expense, so we may have to raise taxes to do it, OK! You gotta find the money somewhere, but employers then would not have to pay this extra amount of money [on health care]. We would separate out the employment relationship from health care and use tax revenue, but does it matter whether I pay higher taxes or I have to pay an insurance company?

That's issue No. 1. Two is negotiating power to cut costs. You remove all those insurance company execs who are making a lot of money. Granted, this single-payer [system] is gonna have to pay people, but I don't think you'd pay them as much as the big insurance companies.

It's not a stock option-based system.

You don't have the stock and the stock options and the advertising and the legal costs and everything. A lot of the costs that are in the current system are the insurance companies competing against the other. The time it takes for consumers to compare all these different options—you say competition is good, but it's time comparing insurance options. What you should be doing is comparing doctors.

Now let's talk about the drug companies and medical device companies.

You've been critical of Senator Smith on her support for repealing the Obamacare medical device tax and her support from the chief executive officer of the medical device company Medtronic.

We've made enormous advances, but at a certain point, Americans are paying for most of it. The rest of the world gets the medical devices and the drugs for maybe a third of the prices we do. A lot of the money is going to stock options and the investors and the executives, not going to research and development.

So what's the solution?

I think the single payer negotiates with the drug companies. It's negotiating power, it's the ability to get those prices down. To say, for this medical device, this is the price that's being paid; for this drug, this is the price we're gonna pay. Which is exactly what Canada is doing and every other country is doing, all the industrialized countries. In the United States, we're paying two or three times as much.

Let's talk about connections between health care and other issues of workers and work. What are your thoughts around these more fundamental issues of labor, economic well-being, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and food security? Where do you fall on these positions?

First of all you take health care out of the equation [by instituting single payer], so people don't have to worry about that. That's going to help a lot. Then we talk about what's left. Certainly childhood nutrition, that's the kind of thing the government ought to be spending on. I am very much focused on government doing what government should do and do it well. So: Nutrition for children [is] absolutely critical. We ought to be doing a lot more than we currently do with SNAP, like school lunches and breakfasts and other meals for children. That's a useful role for government.

What about minimum wage? Fight for 15? Universal basic income? Where do you fall on that?

I think everyone ought to be to get up to at least $15 an hour. Now, how do you get there? Do you require every employer to pay $15 an hour, or do you have exceptions, but then through additional support from the government, like negative income tax, you get the person up to $15? Quite frankly, the wage you really need to support a family is $20 an hour. So I'd rather rephrase that question to: How do you get to $20, but realize that there are gonna be parts of the country where if you say it's even $15, then the employer doesn't hire the person. I'd rather the employer hires someone at $12 or $13 and top it off.

But I think most markets will support $15, so I don't think we're going to have a lot of exceptions. To get it to $20 we're gonna have to be more aggressively using subsidies. But taking health care out of the picture as an expense is gonna make a huge difference.

So philosophically, it sounds like you're pretty aggressive in terms of using using the power of government to set tax policy, to set minimum wages, to create subsidies, and otherwise to intervene pretty strongly to bring everyone up to a basic level.

I would tend to have more spending on education and health care and food assistance—critical functions of government. I'm going to be exercising a lot of scrutiny over both defense spending and large-scale infrastructure projects. I wanna see roads repaired. I wanna see bridges repaired. I wanna see more mass transportation, particularly electric busses. I'm gonna be looking very carefully at very large-scale rail projects.

Speaking of big government projects, you have criticized the Vikings stadium as a bad deal that exemplifies the way big businesses blackmail local and state governments. Do you see it as a major issue?

[In] too many of these public-private partnerships, the private guys make out really well, they do campaign contributions, which then makes sure the public side doesn't get out really well. Everyone knows what happened with the football stadium. But if Congress said we're not going to allow states to use tax-deductible municipal bonds, we could put a stop to this blackmail by NFL owners, or Amazon, or Donald Trump. He doesn't get a handout.

I guess I didn't expect to hear a systemic critique of public-private partnerships coming from you.

I'm pro-business! But business ought to make its own money.

You're not into a rigged game?

I've written on public-private partnerships going back to the South Sea Company of 1720! It was a big scandal. Members of Parliament were all invested in the South Sea Company. Public-private partnerships were mercantilism. That's what Adam Smith rebelled against. If you really understand Adam Smith, if you really believe in free enterprise, you don't believe the government should be subsidizing business. Businesses should rise or fall on their own merits. What Adam Smith didn't like was these boondoggles, and we continue to have them, and Trump was the master of them. He bled the city of New York on every deal he did, and other businesses would have to pay the taxes.

OK, let's talk about Trump. Presumably part of what got you into this race right now is your concern about ethics and what Trump is doing in Washington.

Oh, it's a disaster. It's everything from not letting Muslims into our country—goes against the First Amendment. Attacks on the press—goes against the First Amendment. Talks about the lying press, really is very similar to the rhetoric of the 1932 German presidential election. It is scary rhetoric. Lack of respect for the judiciary, says that a judge is biased against him because the judge is of Mexican heritage. That's the way people talked about Jewish judges in Germany in the 1930s.

So you're elected senator, what's the first thing you do?

First, they have to have hearings in both houses. I'm going to want to be on the Senate Judiciary Committee and have hearings and find out what's going on. We are well past the point where we were in 1973 [Watergate] with respect to clear evidence of abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and other illegal activities. Congress looks terrible; these hearings should have started a year ago. And then let's see where it goes. We should know whether the Trump Organization is borrowing money from the Russians. This isn't something [Robert] Mueller should have to chase down, but the Senate Judiciary Committee should be doing. And then we can talk about where we go from there once we get the facts.

On your website, you've taken a pro-choice position on the basis of a principle of individual liberty. What about drug decriminalization? And how does that fit into your call for a sensible regulatory system around guns?

Abortion is an easier one because it's contained to the woman and the family. Government needs to completely stay out of abortion and the end-of life-decisions, and obviously the question of who you marry. These are things that obviously should be none of government's business. That's the position of the Republican Party prior to 1980. Those are the easier ones.

What about marijuana?

On drugs, on marijuana, it clearly ought to be at the state level. The federal government should not be getting involved. We should approach it like we did alcohol, as they did after the end of Prohibition. The states need to figure out how to deal with the impaired driving issue, and when they feel comfortable, they can go ahead and legalize.

The other drugs, the more harmful drugs, there's still some federal role in, but there's still too much criminalization as opposed to treatment: long prison sentences [that are] extremely expensive, and there are racial disparities with the prison sentences. I'd focus on treatment and prevention. The emphasis should shift.

And guns?

I hate the National Rifle Association. I wrote an op-ed on the NRA on 2012, right after Sandy Hook, called "The NRA Protection Racket." Oh boy, they got mad at me. I would certainly have a license-and-registration system similar to what we have for cars. When you get into more high-powered weapons—obviously you need a different driver's license to drive a truck.

So as a legal expert, you don't see a constitutional problem with building a strong regulatory system?

No. Remember, the Second Amendment refers to a well-regulated militia. What's going on is not a well-regulated militia. So any reading of the Second Amendment context would permit everything we're talking about here.

Last question: You're running now as a Democrat. You're running to get a nomination of a party that you haven't been a part of. You're running against a lieutenant governor who by all accounts has done a good job helping Governor Dayton shepherd Minnesota to a much better place than where it was eight years ago. What happens if you lose, or if you don't get the nomination? Are you going to continue to be a Democrat? To vote for Democrats and support Democrats?

I don't see Republicans on the ballot for federal office, this year, in any state, who should get support. They have all fallen in line behind President Trump. I think it's critical to our democracy. This isn't about being a Democrat; I'm an American before party. I've been a pain in the rear for the Republican Party, and if I were to continue to be involved in the Democratic Party, I will continue to be a pain in the rear on campaign finance, health care, the environment. I'm not interested in party loyalty issues. I'm interested in policy, in issues, and the right thing to do.