The Magazine

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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“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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