Commentary Magazine


Is Schweitzer the Dems’ Chris Christie?

At a 2007 event in Jacksonville, Florida for his presidential primary campaign, Fred Thompson offered a version of a line he used repeatedly when campaigning in the South: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it to be back somewhere that they don’t think I talk with a funny accent.” (I vaguely remember hearing an even better version, in which he responded to a question about who his constituency was supposed to be by quipping that to many Republican voters, he was the only candidate in the race who spoke without an accent.)

The line worked because that year the better-known GOP candidates were from Massachusetts (Mitt Romney), New York (Rudy Giuliani), and Arizona (John McCain). But it would strike a chord in either party; in 2007, the three most recent Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton (Arkansas), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), and Lyndon Johnson (Texas). Yet beyond the specific issue of accents, politicians from coastal enclaves often struggle to relate to Middle America. And that’s why former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer might just make some trouble for Hillary Clinton in 2016–in part because of the possible presence in the race of, as Jonathan noted earlier, the California gadfly Jerry Brown.

I say “make some trouble” because it’s not as though Schweitzer would be a juggernaut in a primary. He doesn’t have the name recognition of the others, and it’s doubtful his fundraising could keep pace with well-known candidates from California and New York. Additionally, in the Democratic Party coastal elitism sells, so Schweitzer may not have an advantage even if he can come across as the “normal” candidate. (And let’s be honest: if your opponent is known as “Moonbeam” Brown, you’d better come across as the normal candidate.)

In fact, the case can be made that Schweitzer would be more like the Democratic version of Chris Christie: perhaps too moderate for the base despite that crossover appeal’s advantage in a general election. Schweitzer’s moderation comes on an issue of new resonance to the Democratic Party’s base but on which they stand opposed to public opinion: gun rights.

Schweitzer’s support for gun rights was, once upon a time, part of what made him seem a dream candidate for Democrats–that combined with the fact that after Al Gore and John Kerry, the Democrats were worried they had nothing but self-serious, humorless, and completely unlikeable candidates to offer in national elections. In 2006, the New York Times’s profile of Schweitzer captured this dynamic perfectly. It began:

It’s fun being governor of Montana. Just watch Brian Schweitzer bouncing around the streets of Helena in the passenger seat of the state’s official S.U.V., fumbling with wires, trying to stick the flashing police light on the roof. When he spots some legislators on the sidewalk, he blasts them with the siren, then summons them by name on the loudspeaker. The men jump, and the governor tumbles out of the car, doubled in laughter, giving everyone a bear hug or a high-five or a soft slap on the cheek. Schweitzer, a Democrat in his first term, marches into a barroom in blue jeans and cowboy boots and a beaded bolo tie, and his border collie, Jag, leaps out of the vehicle and follows him in. The governor throws back a few pints of the local brew and introduces himself to everyone in the place, down to the servers and a small girl stuck there with her parents. He takes time from the backslapping to poach cubes of cheese from the snack platter and sneak them to the girl, who is now chasing his dog around the bar. “This is how you make friends with Jag,” he advises her. “Just hold it in your hand and let him take it.”

As soon as Schweitzer was elected in 2004 — the same night that George W. Bush carried Montana by 20 percentage points — pundits began declaring him the future of the Democratic Party. Never mind that it was his first elected office: the 51-year-old farmer and irrigation contractor had folksy charm and true-grit swagger. He shot guns, rode horses, took his dog to work and decimated his opponents with off-the-cuff one-liners heavy on the bull-and-horse metaphors. He didn’t act like a Democrat, in other words, and to many Democrats, reeling from consecutive losses to Bush, that seemed like a pretty good thing.

Schweitzer himself seems to view his support for gun rights as not just cultural, but ideological: National Journal calls his worldview a “brand of libertarian populism.” This certainly overstates the case: the same article even starts off with a riff on Schweitzer’s support for single-payer health care. But this does get at why Schweitzer would be a reasonably effective general-election candidate. In today’s Democratic Party, he is considered “libertarian,” underlining just how far to the left the Democrats have shifted as a national party.

That ideology would be a pleasant contrast with Hillary Clinton’s baldly statist impulses (“there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child,” etc.), and with Moonbeam Brown’s failed-state bureaucracy. And to many voters, he’d also be the only one without an accent.

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