Commentary Magazine


Brian Schweitzer: First Into the Sea

Since the speculation about Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions really ramped up after the 2012 election, two strategies–one from the right and one from the left–have been touted as possible ways to defeat what many expect to be a Clinton juggernaut. From the right, the strategy has been to discourage her from running at all by treating her as if she’s already in the race, forcing her into a bruising pre-campaign campaign. (The Clintons expect the Benghazi hearings to be a piece of this strategy.)

From the left, the possibility has been raised that Clinton is vulnerable to her left because of her close relationship to Wall Street (which Democrats hope to continue to demonize) and her more hawkish views on foreign policy, including having voted for the Iraq war. Both of these strategies seemed to be long shots, especially the idea of a liberal challenger in the race. It’s highly unlikely serious Democratic populists, such as Elizabeth Warren, would run against Hillary.

But now there seems to be a third strategy to avoid another Clinton White House: a combination of the two. Its proponent is former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. I wrote about his toying with a presidential candidacy back in December, and it doesn’t appear to have faded. Schweitzer’s strategy is to essentially be (l’havdil, as they say in Hebrew) the Nachshon ben Aminadav of the left. The idea is that Schweitzer will combine liberal populism with an attempt to discourage Clinton from running by being the first into the sea. No high-profile Democrat has yet really tried to challenge Clinton in the public arena, and Schweitzer seems to be hoping that if he leads the way the sea will part and open up the path for countless other challengers.

As the Wall Street Journal reports:

He slams Mrs. Clinton for her ties to Wall Street, her courting of corporate campaign cash and her vote for the Iraq war as senator, a jab he delivered during a trip through Iowa in December.

Such outspoken criticism of Mrs. Clinton, rare among Democrats, inspires some leaders in the party’s left wing, who are disillusioned with President Obama and soured by prospects of an unchallenged Clinton candidacy in 2016.

Montana has more cattle than people, making Mr. Schweitzer a long shot for the Democratic presidential nomination, should he even try. Complicating things further, the former two-term governor has little name recognition, little money and a big appetite for oil and gas exploration.

But some Democrats say Mr. Schweitzer has a chance at an important role: the maverick who speaks for disillusioned liberals, calls out Mrs. Clinton’s vulnerabilities and, perhaps, prods a more liberal champion into the race.

To be sure, the article mostly treats the strategy slightly differently than I do. It’s pitched here as way to open the path to someone challenging Clinton in the primaries. But I don’t think that’s realistic. I imagine Schweitzer is well aware of just how difficult it would be to defeat Clinton once she’s in the race, and I suspect he is also conscious of the lack of Democrats who could plausibly run on this platform who would also run against the Clinton machine. And he surely well knows that if his own presidential ambitions are serious, he needs Clinton not to run at all.

Additionally, even if more serious populist Democrats ran against Clinton in the primaries, all that would do is pull Clinton’s own rhetoric to the left. Clinton wouldn’t drink a glass of orange juice that hasn’t been focus-grouped and poll tested. If railing against the one percent or some other mindless liberal cliché polls well in the primaries, that’s what she’ll say. Once the nominee, she’ll tack to the center. She won’t lose Democratic base votes no matter what she does: American left-liberalism is guided by the ideology of power with a dash of progressive identity politics. Clinton is their perfect nominee, no matter how many checks she gets from Wall Street.

To wit: Clinton is already responding to Schweitzer’s populist critique as expected. The same Journal story has a quote from her spokesman:

Asked about all of the ex-governor’s criticisms, Hillary Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said, “She’s proud to have spent a lifetime fighting for equality and opportunity for all people, from jobs and education to health care and voting, and will continue to do so.”

Schweitzer also poses one more challenge to Clinton. Progressive identity politics is bitter and completely humorless. Schweitzer, in contrast to virtually every high-profile Democrat in the country, is funny and charming. Angry populism is something Clinton can mimic, if need be. She can excel at playing the victim. But lighthearted, down-to-earth populism? That’s her Achilles’ heel.

Thus while the odds are still against Schweitzer, he’s probably the right Democrat to make this play. Democrats around the country no doubt expect the sea to swallow him. But they’ll be watching just in case.

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