The Magazine

How the West Was Won

Is Montana Senate candidate Jon Tester the new face of the Democratic party?

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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It is difficult to quantify the role the Internet has played in Tester's campaign. When I asked one aide how important the Internet was, he immediately said, "It's huge." For his part, Moulitsas sees in Tester and other Western Democrats the beginnings of a new Democratic party, even a new ideology. In the end, Moulitsas wrote on June 7, John Morrison's advantages--his money, his connections, his experience--were ir rel evant. Instead, "people matter." To Moulitsas, this only showed that the centrist Democratic Leadership Council is "an irrelevant, dying organization" because

it has no people behind it. It has no natural constituency. No ability to mobilize anything more than corporate lobbyists for any cause. And in today's people-powered environment, it is an anachronism of a different era, built for a different political world, unable or unwilling to change or adapt. Its candidates are dropping like flies, unable to win contested primaries. More and more DLC-aligned incumbents are facing tough primaries. Its patron saint--Joe Lieberman--may not even be a Democrat for long. You know Tester's dramatic victory has to weigh on Joementum.

As it happens, Moulitsas turned out to be right about Lieberman, though the fate of the DLC is still unclear. What is clear, though, is that Moulitsas has done everything he can to champion Tester's candidacy. For their book Crashing the Gate, Moulitsas and coauthor Jerome Armstrong, a blogger and political consultant, visited the farm at Big Sandy and wrote an adoring passage on Tester. Reading the books and web posts, you see that the bloggers are attracted to Tester's populism, his antiwar politics, his criticisms of the Patriot Act, and his authenticity.

But Moulitsas also believes Tester and other Western Democrats represent the beginning of a new political animal--what he calls the Libertarian Democrat. In this analysis, traditional libertarians err in seeing the government as the greatest threat to individual freedom. Corporations also threaten personal liberty, Moulitsas writes on his website and in a recent essay for the Cato Institute. So the Libertarian Democrat uses government power to limit the freedom-inhibiting tendencies of global capitalism while also guarding against abuses of government power. "A Libertarian Dem gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue to live happily into their old age," Moulitsas wrote in a June 7 post. "Same with health care. And so on."

One could argue that Moulitsas has elided the distinction between Rawlsian liberalism and Hayekian libertarianism. This might be why the Libertarian Democrat is to date strictly a laboratory creature. It has yet to be spotted in nature. Tester himself seems a little more sanguine about the importance of the liberal blogosphere. The Internet's power, he told me, is its ability to get "information out to people." "It's another avenue," he said. "It gives people the option to be interactive. Any time you give information out to folks, it's for the better." Tester believes the liberal blogs energize young voters, and sometimes more senior voters, too. His 86-year-old mother is a political junkie who goes online to read liberal websites like Left in the West, Daily Kos, and MyDD.

In truth, the most important factor in this campaign has not been the Internet. Nor has it been Tester. It has been his opponent, Burns, who seems to have worn out the patience of Montana voters. Tester says Burns has changed. "I just don't think Montanans go back and do the sort of things he did," he told me. "I don't think that was the guy they elected."

Burns, a former Marine, was born in Missouri, but moved to Montana when he was a teenager. He settled in Yellowstone County, where Billings is, and eventually became county commissioner. He was first elected to the Senate in 1988, only the second Republican senator from Montana in the state's history. In 1994 he became the first Republican senator from Montana to be reelected. In 2000 he fought a tough race against Brian Schweitzer, winning 51 percent to 47 percent. Schweitzer went on to become governor. Burns went on to become mired in scandal.

For a state that says it wants to be "left alone"--its legislature has passed a resolution condemning the Patriot Act--Montana is eager for as many federal dollars as it can get. On his website, Burns brags that over the course of his career he has brought more than $2 billion in federal taxpayer money to the state. Most of that money has been in the form of earmarks, or set-asides and grants loaded in appropriations bills. At a time when conservatives have roundly condemned the Republican Congress's non-defense discretionary spending habits, Burns has made his love of earmarks the center of his campaign. "He wants change," Burns said of his opponent on October 17, during a debate with Tester at Montana State University's Billings campus. "I'll tell you what he'll get: spare change."

The Tester campaign says that Burns is not as good an appropriator as he would have you believe. But this argument misses the point. It cuts against Tester's idea that there is something inherently corrupting about earmarks. It is alleged that some of the appropriations Burns is so proud of were favors done for Jack Abramoff. Burns received some $150,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff, who was a strong ally. He has since given that money to American Indian charities, but not before the felonious lobbyist became a central issue in this campaign. On the trail, Tester misses no opportunity to mention Abramoff, lobbyists, and Washington corruption. This clearly frustrates Burns, who has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing and is adamant that he did nothing wrong. "Jon, you've dribbled this thing out for the last 18 months," Burns said at the Billings debate. "And there's nothing there."

"If there's nothing there," Tester replied, "why did you spend $27,000 last month for your criminal defense attorney?"

Burns has other problems. He is seen as close to President Bush at a time when Bush's popularity has collapsed and his power is waning. Then there is Burns's home-spun style. The problem is that it has a habit of spinning out of control. Until recently, Burns's wry sensibility was one of his biggest political assets. But that has changed. This year alone, he has cursed at a group of firefighters, made an insensitive comment about Hispanic immigrants, and forgotten the name of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. All these incidents caused him embarrassment. Last week, at the Billings debate, Burns claimed that President Bush indeed had a plan for victory in Iraq, but added, "We're not going to tell you what our plan is, Jon, because you're just going to go out and blow it." Whereupon the packed crowd burst into laughter. And Burns lost any credibility he might have had with the audience.

Montana is an unusual place. It is one of the largest states and one of the least populated. It is growing, but slowly. It has the fourth-highest median age among the states, and it ranks 42nd in median household income. It is overwhelmingly white; American Indians make up the largest minority group at 6 percent of the population. There are large numbers of veterans and retirees. In 1992 Montana gave Ross Perot around 26 percent of the vote. Clinton won the state that year, the first time a Democrat had taken Montana's electoral votes since 1964. In 2004 voters broke for Bush 59 percent to 39 percent and passed resolutions banning gay marriage and legalizing medical marijuana.

Also in 2004, Democrat Brian Schweitzer was elected governor, and the Democrats took control of the state legislature. Schweitzer is an atypical politician with a knack for catchy phrases and unusual positions. Not long ago, he told the New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg that his idea of gun control is "You control your gun and I'll control mine." Schweitzer has received glowing media coverage from the New York Times Magazine to the Washington Monthly to 60 Minutes. He once took George Steph anopoulos on a helicopter ride. And yet most of this coverage casts a blind eye to Schweitzer's more conservative tendencies. In 2004 he chose a Republican as his running mate. He supported John McCain's presidential bid in 2000. These days he's flirting with supporting Mitt Romney in 2008.

This ability to blur partisan and ideological lines may be one reason for the Democrats' success in Montana and elsewhere in the Interior West. When Schweitzer won in 2004, Democrats had been out of the governor's office for 16 years. They had been in the minority in both chambers of the state legislature for 12 years. Today they are in the majority. As Ryan Sager points out in his new book The Elephant in the Room, in 2004 Democrats in Montana won races for four out of five state offices. As Thomas Schaller points out in his new book Whistling Past Dixie, no state in the Interior West had a Democratic governor as recently as 2001. Today four of those states have Demo crats in the governor's mansion, and Democrats are running strong campaigns for governor in Colorado and Nevada. And as Mark Sundeen pointed out in a recent profile of Schweitzer, a decade ago the Interior West was home to 24 congressional districts of which Democrats held 4. Today the region is home to 28 districts of which Demo crats hold 8. On Election Day they may pick up as many as 4 more.

One day last week, I asked Tester why the Democrats seem to be doing so well in the West.

He doesn't know. "Part of it is the fact that we've worked very hard to get our message out," he said, before adding that Montana and other Western states would vote less for Republicans in presidential elections if only Demo cratic candidates campaigned there.

It was a typical answer. Tester is not what you would call a detail-oriented politician. He tends to stick to generalities. If this were a different year, and Burns were a different sort of candidate, it would hurt Tester. He never mentions how he would vote on taxes. He never mentions which specific health care policies he would adopt, saying only that all options should be "on the table." He avoids confrontation. As I watched Tester interact with voters, I never heard him ask anyone for their vote.

And Tester has another vulnerability. If he is elected, he will become the most liberal senator from Montana in decades. He is a true dove. When I asked him when he would support the use of military force overseas, he said, "Last resort. You've exhausted all other options, then you use military force." He wouldn't say much more. Eventually he added that he supported the war in Afghanistan, "You bet." When I asked him about the Patriot Act, which he has said he would like to see repealed, he softened his language. "We ought not to cut the judicial branch out of it," he said. "If it can't meet constitutional muster, it's got to be scrapped." When I asked him who his political hero was, he chose a stock answer for Democrats, saying that Theodore Roosevelt was a "great man" on "a lot of different fronts." But then he paused, and added that he admired Mike Mansfield, the antiwar Democrat who represented Montana in the U.S. Senate from 1953 to 1977.

It is probably Tester's dovishness, in a post-9/11 world, that has prevented him from opening a double-digit lead over Burns in the polls. In the end, though, this race will be decided on how well the embattled incumbent has represented Montana's interests. Tester's positions on national security issues and his sometimes vaporous rhetoric probably won't matter. Some people even find this latter aspect of his political persona endearing.

On October 17, Tester visited St. Vincent Health Care hospital in Billings, where he ate lunch with a group of doctors. For a hospital dining room, the food didn't seem too healthy: The entrées on offer were chicken fried steak and ham. Tester grabbed a plate and started eating. The conversation was polite. One of the doctors mentioned he once spent a summer in Big Sandy. Tester got excited. They discussed the "big white house" about 30 miles outside of town that the MacNamara ranching family built long ago. Every so often Tester would turn to Sharla and ask her a question.

Then the talk turned serious. The doctors started complaining about malpractice lawsuits. It became clear that these medical professionals felt heavy pressure not only from lawyers sniffing out the next kill but also from government bureaucrats and needy patients. They saw health care not simply in terms of the uninsured, but as a complicated tradeoff involving cost control, access to services, and quality of care. Someone asked Tester what should be done. He clearly had no idea what to say, so he opened the floor to suggestions. After a little more discussion he asked, "So what's the solution?"

"You tell us," one of the doctors replied.

"You guys are in the field," Tester said. "I know how to grease a combine, okay?"

Everyone laughed and smiled, but Tester's smile was the widest of them all.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.