UPDATE: Steve Bullock ended his presidential campaign on Dec. 2, 2019.
When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock entered the contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he was seen as a not-too-young, not-too-old contender with executive experience and a track record of success in a red state. So far, however, he has languished in the polls and qualified for only one of the Democratic debates. Bullock, 53, met recently with USA TODAY’s Editorial Board to discuss issues, impeachment and the state of the race. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:
Q. Why are you running?
A. I am running both to beat Donald Trump and to bridge some of these divides to make our economy and (Washington) actually start working for folks. You know, I’m the only one in the field who won in a Trump state on election night 2016. He took Montana by 20 percentage points in what was the most expensive race in our state's history. I won by four points, and 25% to 30% of my voters voted for Donald Trump. If we can't win back places that we lost in 2016, President Trump's going to be reelected.
Q. What have you accomplished?
A. I've been 10 years in public office now, and I think I've been able to show people that government can function. We've been able to figure out ways to get meaningful things done in people's lives. And that's everything from expanding health care to record investments in education to first time investments in pre-K.
Q. Early on, you weren’t enthusiastic about moving toward impeachment of President Trump.
A. Yeah, I was not — until Ukraine — in favor of even going forward with an inquiry. I thought it would be counterproductive and actually feed into the divides that we have in this country.
Q. And now?
A. It's something that, electorally or politically, I'm not sure that it's the best thing to do, but for sort of the preservation of this democracy, I think we do have to go forward. I do think there is sufficient evidence to actually go to an impeachment trial.
Q. Would you vote to impeach and convict?
A. Well, I would certainly want to see everything that's presented. I think there is sufficient information at this point, for sure, to remove him by impeachment. (But) we've got to recognize that at the end of the day, his removal from office is probably much more likely by the ballot box, not by the impeachment proceedings.
Q. You're at less than 1% in most of the polls. What makes you think that's going to change?
A. We're still (85 days out from the Iowa caucuses). I just went up on television with a half-million dollar ad buy in Iowa. A guy named Tom Miller, attorney general and one of Barack Obama's first endorsees in Iowa, (is supporting me). We have a good ground game there.
Q. Is this the right time to be running as a uniter?
A. While there is certainly energy across our party, I have some concern that we are conflating the world of Twitter with the world of most people's lives. Most people actually want government to work. This is, from my perspective, a single-issue election in some respects. And that single issue is making sure that Donald Trump isn't reelected. But beyond that, we've got to get to a point where government functions again.
Q. How do you convince voters that the governor of Montana has enough experience to handle foreign policy issues?
A. I wish that we voted on foreign policy in this country. If we did, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry certainly would have been president. Look, I've been in Afghanistan, I've been in Kuwait because I send National Guard soldiers on the fourth and fifth deployments. I've taken businesses around the world as National Governors Association chair.
Q. Would you keep some kind of U.S. force in Afghanistan on a permanent basis?
A. I don't think we could pull out tomorrow. By the end of my first term, I would like to see all the soldiers gone. And you can't just do this by military might.
Q. You'd negotiate with the Taliban?
A. Well, at least, yes, start speaking to them again, for sure.
Q. For 70 years, we’ve had tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops around the world in places to act in various ways as a stabilizing force.
A. I don't think you can turn around and say, we're just going to bring all of our troops home. I mean, it's in our strategic interests to have troops in, let's say, South Korea, or troops in so many other places. And I don't think that we can just draw it all back.
Q. What should we do with Russia?
A. Well, I think we have let 2016, by and large, go unchallenged. And I think as we go into 2020, a bright line has to be that you are not going to be interfering with our elections. To the extent that there is interference with our elections going into 2020 from Russia, I would hope even under this administration that Democrats and Republicans would take steps to both call it out and do some of the things that you're not necessarily going see in cyber to attack right back to them.
Q. What do you think of plans by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for free education?
A. I was raised in a single-parent household, sort of paycheck to paycheck. I wanted to go to University of Montana; that's where all my friends were going. My mom would do research. She found this small college called Claremont McKenna College (in California). I went sight unseen. I worked my way through college, borrowed my way through law school, ended up paying off $175,000, in today's terms, of student debt. No one should have the burden of $175,000.
Q. So what would you do?
A. I think that there are ways to make education accessible and affordable without a promise of we're going to get rid of $1.6 trillion of all student debt. I would go about this is both on the affordability upfront and accessibility on the back end. I would increase Pell Grant eligibility somewhere between 30% and 40%.
Q. How about restoring the use of Pell Grants in prison?
A. As we talk about criminal justice reform, if we're not talking about trying to set up individuals so that they can be successful on the way out, then we're really missing something. So I think that there should be Pell eligibility for individuals who are incarcerated.
Q. A lot of candidates say they are the ones who can win back Trump voters.
A. Well, 25 to 30% of my voters voted for Donald Trump at the same time that I've been a pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat. I've been able to make those connections, urban and rural. And Montana has greater population than a Delaware or Vermont.
Q. A recent New York Times poll shows President Trump with continued strength in key battleground states.
A. I think that's a wake-up call. I worry at times that this field of Democrats hasn't spent a lot of time talking to those Obama-Trump voters. We need to bring those voters back.
Q. ls "Medicare for All" going to scare away some of those voters, particularly union voters who like their health care coverage?
A. I think it's bad policy, and I think it's bad politics. What I have said is that there should be a public option buy-in. We need to get to the point where health care is affordable and accessible to all. But if you look at the gains we've made in this nation, the biggest step since Medicare was the Affordable Care Act. The idea that we're going to effectively take away health care from 160 million people is a loser in the general election.
Q. You’ve only qualified for one of the presidential debates, and you won’t be at the one this month. Is there any realistic path to the nomination if you can’t get into the debate?
A. Absolutely. I mean, tell me what's come out of the debates that has actually shaped this whole field along the way?
Q. What is your position on late-term abortions?
A. What I've said time and time again is Roe v. Wade has set principles of what happens in the third trimester. I respect individuals who say that they don't think that abortion should occur, period. But from my perspective, it's not the government's right to make this decision. This decision should actually be made by the woman in consultation with her doctor and her family and her faith.
Q. Is there one issue that transcends the others?
A. When we talk about climate, when we talk about gun violence, when we talk about income inequality, if we don't recognize what the fight of my career has been — the corrupting influence of money in the system — then we are much less likely to actually make meaningful progress.
Q. Why not run for the Senate instead of president?
A. I think we will have good candidates. I don't need to wake up every day and say I'm an elected official to fulfill me. And I also recognize that I have a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old. The rest of the time they would be in my and my wife's house, I would be in Washington, D.C., coming home on Saturdays.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 candidate Steve Bullock: I am running to beat Donald Trump