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Schweitzer Takes Aim

A progressive populist has Hillary in his sights

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Brian Schweitzer sounds content with being a “former” pol. As we chat on the phone, he is looking out the window of his home on Georgetown Lake in western Montana. By mid-November, the lake is frozen, and the Pintler Mountains to the south are covered with snow. Schweitzer’s home sits at the end of a dirt road more than a mile long. “I’m 25 miles from groceries,” he says.

Schweitzer

Brian Schweitzer

The 58-year-old Democrat is also a long way from Helena, the state capital, where he was governor from 2005 to 2013. And he’s even farther from Washington, D.C., where national Democrats had hoped he might succeed longtime senator Max Baucus in two years. They assumed when Baucus announced his retirement in April that Schweitzer was the party’s best (and maybe only) choice to replace him. But in July, Schweitzer said he wasn’t running, leaving Democrats scrambling to find a suitable candidate.

Just because Schweitzer wasn’t ready to be one of a hundred in the U.S. Senate doesn’t mean he’s out of the game, though. He’s acting and talking like someone who is preparing to run for president. In an interview with Scott Conroy of Real Clear Politics, Schweitzer casually mentioned New Hampshire’s state motto. “Live Free or Die,” he said. “We understand that notion in Montana.” On December 18, he’s making the trek to Des Moines to speak to a gathering of Progress Iowa, a liberal grassroots group.

During a recent appearance on MSNBC, Schweitzer attempted to opine thoughtfully on foreign policy (the Iran nuclear deal, he said, would “tip the balance away from the Saudis and the Egyptians to the Persians,” and the Middle East was experiencing “big changes”) and said one item on his “bucket list” is to visit every county in Iowa. He’s taking shots at potential primary rivals (Hillary Clinton) and expounding on where the party needs to go after Obama. There are no public plans for a (ghostwritten) book on the Montana values that shaped him and could reshape America—yet.

This far out from 2016, Schweitzer’s doing just about anything to raise his profile. After seeing his MSNBC interview, I called up a former assistant, saying I’d like to interview the governor next time he’s on the East Coast. A few hours later, I got a phone call from Schweitzer himself. We spoke for over an hour.

I asked if he would consider making health care policy a major element of his presidential campaign. “I didn’t say I was going to run for president in 2016, did I?” he shot back. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t, but I didn’t say I was. But it’s something I’m interested in.”

To hear Schweitzer tell it, he was never really serious about running for Baucus’s Senate seat. “The Associated Press asked me if I had intentions of running for Congress or for the Senate,” he says. “I told them, and I was widely quoted, and you can write this, that I wasn’t goofy enough to be in the House of Representatives nor senile enough to be in the Senate.” He tells me he has a “72-hour rule” about spending time in the nation’s capital. “If I spend longer than that, when I get back here I have to wash myself with stuff that I use on my dogs when they get sprayed by a skunk,” he says. “There’s a smell that emanates from that city.”

That’s classic Schweitzer: brash, funny, and more than a little self-serving. In truth, he had run for federal office in 2000 against Republican senator Conrad Burns. Burns squeaked by the underfunded Schweitzer by just three points. It was a strong enough showing that Schweitzer ran, successfully this time, for governor four years later. He says he prefers the dynamism of being an executive.

“It is mostly motion masquerading as action,” he says of legislative work. “If you’ve run a business, like I have, if you’ve run a state, like I have, then you like to get things done. I get up at 4:30, 5:00 in the morning, and I decide, ‘What can we do right now, today, to change the world?’ and then you can start doing things to make that come true.”

Some Democrats are interested in making a Schweitzer candidacy come true. Nathan Daschle is a Democratic strategist and the former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association who worked closely with Schweitzer when the governor was chairman of the DGA in 2008. He says Schweitzer has a “unique brand” that mixes progressive values, populist rhetoric, and Western self-reliance. “I would be surprised if he looks at the space and doesn’t try to get in,” says Daschle.

Even if that space includes Hillary Clinton? The shadow of the former secretary of state looms over the unformed Democratic primary field, something Schweitzer acknowledges. In 2012, he told the AP that if Clinton ran in 2016, “she walks away with the nomination and then beats whichever Republican.” When asked on MSNBC about that assessment, Schweitzer said it’s still “probably true” before launching a barrage at Hillary, Barack Obama, and the state of the Democratic establishment.

“The question that we have is, will it be the Hillary that leads the progressives?” he said. “Or is it the Hillary that says, ‘I’m already going to win the Democratic nomination, and so I can shift hard right on Day 1.’ We can’t afford any more hard right. We had eight years of George Bush. Now we’ve had five years of Obama, [who], I would argue, in many cases has been a corporatist.”

No doubt that sounds sweet to grassroots progressives who view Hillary with suspicion and have been disappointed by what they perceive as Obama’s move to the center. But it’s even harsher since it comes from the man who gave a rousing address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that placed him in the national spotlight. Clearly Schweitzer is trying make enough noise to position himself as the voice of the progressive populist wing of the Democratic party.

Brian David Schweitzer was born in 1955 in Havre, a railroad town in north-central Montana. Descended from German and Irish homesteaders, Schweitzer pursued two degrees in the agriculture sciences and shipped off to the Middle East for seven years in the 1980s to develop irrigation systems there. Among the places he lived were Libya and Saudi Arabia, giving the young Schweitzer a worldliness not enjoyed by most sons of Montana. (On a recent TV panel discussion on the Middle East, Schweitzer showed off his Arabic with a hearty “marhaba,” or “welcome.”) 

He returned to Montana to ranch and farm, later working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His first foray into politics came in the race against Burns in 2000. Hoping to capitalize on outrage over the high cost of prescription drugs, Schweitzer made headlines when he packed buses full of senior citizens and drove them to Canada, where they could buy cheaper medicine.

“When they got on the bus, I didn’t ask if they were Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or vegetarian. I didn’t care,” Schweitzer told the AP at the time. “I wanted to know if they were fed up with the high cost of prescription drugs, and they trusted a farmer they didn’t know to take them to Canada.”

His impulse to make bold statements with stunts would pop up again later on in his political career. His thin margin against Burns, in a state where George W. Bush won in a landslide at the top of the ticket, encouraged Schweitzer to try again. In 2004, Montana’s unpopular incumbent Republican governor declined to run for reelection. Schweitzer ran as a populist outsider against Republican Bob Brown, a veteran state legislator and the secretary of state. In an effort to burnish his nonpartisan credentials, Schweitzer selected a Republican legislator, John Bohlinger, as his running mate. (Bohlinger has since switched parties.) Despite Bush cleaning up once again in the state, Schweitzer eked out a four-point win to become the first Democratic governor since 1989.

Schweitzer became known for his endearing folksiness. Frequently dropping the traditional necktie for a bolo tie, he instituted an open-door policy for reporters in his capitol office. There, they were likely to see his black-and-white border collie, Jag, dubbed the “First Dog of Montana.” In 2008, Jag had an approval rating of 80 percent, higher than Schweitzer himself. The governor once traveled to Opheim, a town of 85 and a short drive from the Canadian border, to give the commencement address at the local high school. Unremarkable, maybe, except there was only one student graduating. The AP reported on the event.

The spectacles continued, often designed to embarrass the Republican legislature. At one point, Schweitzer fashioned a cattle brand with the word “VETO” and used it to dramatically burn bills in front of crowds outside the capitol. People loved it. Democrats overflow with praise for Schweitzer’s “political gut.” Nathan Daschle calls him “one of the most instinctively political people” he knows.

“He had a knack for reading what the general population was wanting,” says Jon Sesso, a Democratic state senator who was minority leader in the statehouse for part of Schweitzer’s tenure. Even Republicans grudgingly give him his due.

“I do think the state has a strong populist streak that has grown stronger as party identification has grown weaker,” says Jeff Essman, the GOP majority leader in the Montana senate. “Brian Schweitzer did very well in capitalizing on that streak.”

Montanans were pleased with Schweitzer’s first term and, in 2008, he was reelected decisively, winning by 32 points and in all but 7 of Montana’s 56 counties. Schweitzer became one of the most consistently popular governors in the country and, in October 2012, near the end of his second term, he had an approval rating of 54 percent.

That kind of political prowess should interest national Democrats looking to break into traditionally Republican states on the presidential level. Since 1968, Montana has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee only once: for Bill Clinton, in 1992.

“Democrats have been struggling to figure out how to traverse the red-blue state divide to find a way to communicate and implement in red-state America the principles and ideas that resonate so strongly in blue-state America, and to do it without causing a revolt,” said MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, before introducing the governor in that recent TV appearance. He turned to look at Schweitzer, sitting across from him. “You understand,” Kornacki gushed. “You actually spoke and pursued a fairly progressive agenda in Montana, in a red state, and it didn’t cost you.” Schweitzer smiled back, his grin stretching across his round face and complementing his receding hairline. “You have to explain what you’re doing,” he replied. 

In our conversation, he explained what he did, though it wasn’t always clearly progressive. “As governor, I cut more taxes than any governor in history,” he says, a nice opening for a presidential pitch. “I built the largest budget surplus on an annual basis for eight consecutive years, larger than any time in the history of Montana, 10 times larger than all through the nineties, and invested more in education. In fact, reformed education. There were several things that we did. We had to take on higher-education administrators, and we had to take on teachers’ unions—they didn’t agree with us on some of the things that we did—but at the end of the day, during a six-year period, my last six years, Montana increased the percent of our adult population with a college degree at the fastest rate in the country.”

So what are Schweitzer’s progressive bona fides? For one thing, he has no patience for Democratic third way-ism on economic issues. It’s the perspective that prompts him to refer to Obama’s presidency as corporatist. He criticizes Obamacare from the left, blaming fellow Montanan Max Baucus (the chairman of the Senate committee responsible for drafting much of the law) for allowing special interests to influence the bill. “This bill, which was written by the insurance company and pharmaceutical lobbyists, doesn’t challenge the expenses,” Schweitzer tells me. “Why would it? If you’re in the business, and you get to write the bill, what are you going to do?”

His own national health care reform would “fit on the back of an envelope.” Explaining the whole thing takes him half an hour. (“Am I boring you yet?” he asks around minute 25.) At the center of his proposal is allowing citizens below the retirement age to enroll in Medicare, forcing private insurers to compete against the government rate.

“As you probably recall .  .  . most Democrats were calling for a public option. .  .  . But what came out of the Senate Finance Committee did not have a public option,” Schweitzer says, blaming health insurance lobbyists and their enablers in both parties. “We now have the corporate party and the corporate-lite party.”

He speaks with a populist’s disdain for corporations. He paints himself as the defender of the hardworking miner. In January, after leaving the governorship, Schweitzer partnered with a New York hedge fund to instigate a hostile takeover of Stillwater, a palladium and platinum mining concern and one of the state’s largest companies. Stillwater had purchased copper and gold interests in both Canada and Argentina and had seen its stock price plummet. Schweitzer said it reminded him of the turmoil in Montana after the once-powerful Anaconda Copper expanded into Chile in the mid-20th century as a hedge against Montana’s powerful mineworker unions. When Salvador Allende nationalized the mines in Chile, Anaconda went bust.

“It worried me,” Schweitzer says. “I thought to myself, honestly, if a governor or a former governor or a former senator from Montana, if things were going on in the risks the Anaconda company was making in Chile, if they would have stepped in, if they would have said something, if they would have stood up to the management and the directors, perhaps they could have saved the Anaconda Copper Company.” In May, Schweitzer and his investment partners took control of Stillwater, with Schweitzer named the new chairman of the board. Stillwater has since reduced its interest in Argentina. Schweitzer also owns nearly 40,000 shares (worth around $450,000). It’s all for the sake, he says, of protecting Montana jobs.

As governor, Schweitzer wasn’t always a doctrinaire liberal. He deviated from his party on energy and guns, understandable given Montana’s economic reliance on mining and energy production and its rural landscape. He strongly supported the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, referring to those debating the project in Washington as “jackasses,” and pushed for more development of coal. And in 2009, Schweitzer signed a law that exempts Montana-made firearms from federal regulations.

“It’s a gun bill, but it’s another way of demonstrating the sovereignty of the state of Montana,” he said after signing it, sounding a bit like Texas governor Rick Perry. Schweitzer recognizes his position on guns as one major reason he’d struggle in a Democratic primary. His credo on gun control, he told students at Montana State University earlier this year, is: “You control yours, I’ll control mine.”

But Schweitzer makes up for his unorthodoxies on issues ranging from the environment (among the cattle-branded vetoes were a set of “anti-environment” bills pushed by the GOP) to social issues (he’s pro-choice) to health care. He increased education spending and public-sector pension funds, while maintaining a surplus. “He was fiscally conservative but socially very progressive,” says Jon Sesso, the Democratic state senator.

“There aren’t many people who can fire up progressives and get an ‘A’ rating from the NRA,” says Daschle. Put another way, there aren’t many Democrats like Brian Schweitzer.

Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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