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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.

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