Life of the Party

Brian Schweitzer, the blue governor of the red state of Montana, may just have the answer to the Democrats' woes.

Published April 19, 2005 10:12PM (EDT)

The future is wearing a turquoise bolo tie wrapped around the open collar of a blue-and-white-striped button-down dress shirt. And if that doesn't sound quite right, then you haven't considered the mismatched gray suit coat or the blue jeans and boots down below. Meet Brian Schweitzer, the soil sciences major who grew up to be the governor of Montana -- and may be the next best hope of the Democratic Party.

On Nov. 2, George W. Bush beat John Kerry in Montana by 20 percentage points. On the same day, Montana voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage -- and elected as their governor a populist, pro-choice Democrat. Are Montana voters as schizophrenic as the governor's fashion sense, or is Brian Schweitzer just that good?

A lot of folks say it's the latter. Everyone from the Washington Monthly to the American Spectator has taken note of the rancher from Whitefish, Mont., and what the Wall Street Journal called his "well-spoken, gun-owning, dog-loving, native-ritual-doing, shot-of-whiskey-drinking true-west style." Democrats hungry for hope in the dark days after 2004 find themselves wondering whether another little-known governor from a small red state can somehow help them find their way back to the White House.

Ask Schweitzer about 2008, and he ticks off the names of Democratic governors who've proved they can appeal to red-state voters. What about him? "You know, all these people are saying, 'To be governor of Montana, he must have it figured out,'" Schweitzer says. "I'm telling you, I've broken more colts than there are days that I've been in office. I'm just a regular guy, getting things done in Montana. I don't know if that works nationally, but I don't care."

But it's clear that he does care. In an hour-long interview, Schweitzer gave impassioned advice on how Democrats can win back the rural West by "leading with their hearts" and recognizing that a one-size-fits-all platform on gun control won't play in hunting and fishing states like Montana.

A native Montanan who spent time in the Middle East before returning to start his own business, Schweitzer espouses a political philosophy that combines the class-based populism of a John Edwards with the budgetary pragmatism of a Howard Dean, all wrapped up in shit-kicking Western dialect that the Daily Kos' Markos Moulitsas Zúniga calls "a genuine version of Bush's fake ranch."

Salon spoke with Schweitzer late last week in his office in Helena. To get to the governor, you park your car on the curb out in front of the State Capitol -- there are no parking meters here -- and walk straight into the governor's office, unmolested by bureaucratic gatekeepers or security personnel. Helena is a long way from Washington, but maybe not for long: Before I can even compose a question, Schweitzer is offering his prescription for what ails the Democratic Party.

"You know who the most successful Democrats have been through history?" he asks. "Democrats who've led with their hearts, not their heads. Harry Truman, he led with his heart. Jack Kennedy led with his heart. Bill Clinton, well, he led with his heart, but it dropped about 2 feet lower in his anatomy later on.

"We are the folks who represent the families. Talk like you care. Act like you care. When you're talking about issues that touch families, it's OK to make it look like you care. It's OK to have policies that demonstrate that you'll make their lives better -- and talk about it in a way that they understand. Too many Democrats -- the policy's just fine, but they can't talk about it in a way that anybody else understands."

That sounds like a not-so-veiled criticism of John Kerry.

Oh, Washington, D.C. The problem is, they get to Washington, they drink that water, they get Washington-speak. This is not a criticism of John Kerry. It's the reason that people keep saying, "Oh, [the next Democratic president is] likely to be a governor." It's because governors are faced with this all the time: Their language has to be the language that is clear enough for Joe or Mary Six-Pack to understand. When you speak on the Senate floor or on the House floor or in a Cabinet meeting, you don't even have to use the words that we use. It's a new language -- you know, "budget reconciliation, blah blah blah blah."

No. When you're out visiting with folks in a way that touches their heart, you tell them, "We're going to find the money to do the right thing." Well, when a senator stands on the Senate floor, it'd take him two hours to explain that.

But is winning back the White House really just a matter of learning to say things in a clearer way?

A whole lot of it's visual. I heard somebody say, very early in the last presidential campaign, that they turned the volume off on their television and just watched the two candidates, and they said, "Bush is going to win." You know, when Bush walked in the room, he'd say, "Oh, hey, how ya doin' there?" giving somebody a high-five right there, giving somebody a thumbs up. When Kerry walked in, he found his way to the podium, and he described in painful detail -- with big words, in a strong way -- all the things that he was going to make right for the American people.


You need to have good solid policy -- that's important. But you've got to touch people. They've got to know you; they've got to know that you believe in what you're saying. And that's probably more important when people vote than your policies. Because how the hell are they going to raise their families, maybe work two jobs, go hunting on the weekend, bowl and drink beer with the boys on Tuesday night, and still have enough time to figure out who's telling the truth about the budget, about healthcare, about education?

So it's about the candidate himself -- about coming across as authentic and as someone voters will say is "one of us"?

They look up there and say, "That guy's a straight shooter. If I wasn't so busy bowling and working and fishing, and if I had time to spend on these issues, I bet I'd come to the same conclusions that that guy would. But it's a good thing that he's doing all that studying and stuff, because I'm busy fishing and bowling."

How do you build that kind of affinity? Do you have to show the voters that you're a regular guy -- the "who would you most want to have a beer with?" test -- or is it a matter of building some kind of link with voters on political or social issues?

You're asking me? Hell, I'm out here in Montana. I don't have any idea what the big shots in Washington, D.C., are doing. I don't think I've got any great solutions for the rest of the world, but I think I understand Montanans.

OK, let's talk about Montanans then. Did 53 percent of them vote for you because they thought you were a stand-up guy, or was it because they thought you shared their values and their positions on issues?

Both. They think I'm a stand-up guy and I'm a straight shooter. I'm plain-spoken, but the things that I say make sense.

But you've got to get people to listen in the first place. In a lot of the country -- in the South, in the rural West -- folks aren't particularly receptive to hearing what a Democrat has to say. They've made up their minds already, and they're not going to trust many Democrats on something like gun control, for example.

Maybe. But you know, when they see you pick up a gun, they know you've used one before. When you pick up a gun and you put in a round and you fire one off, they know that you know what it's all about.

In my Senate campaign [Schweitzer ran unsuccessfully in 2000], I had a great campaign ad. I stood in front of one of my barns, and I said: "Montana is not New York City. We don't need a bunch of new gun laws. We need to enforce the ones we already have." And then we moved to a shot where I was with one of my sons and my daughter, and I was holding a .270, which is a fairly good-size rifle. As I'm talking, I lifted the bolt, shoved in a bullet, put the safety on and handed it to my son as my daughter watched, and he touched one off. And as I was doing that, I was saying, "In Montana, we understand that passing responsibility from one generation to another with gun safety is part of who we are."

So it wasn't about guns, necessarily; it wasn't about family, necessarily; it wasn't about responsibility, necessarily. But it was the nexus of those.

But we didn't run it enough. What happened was -- consultants. "Oh, this issue, that issue, some other issue." They're all talking about the issues. And I just kept pushing them in the Senate race: "Why don't we just run the gun ad and nothing else?" And they said, "No, no we've got all these issues."

So this time around, when we started shooting ads, they had some polling data, and they knew what pushed the buttons of the people in Montana. And I said, "No. This is the way this campaign is going to work: The more times that we run ads with me on a horse or carrying a gun -- it's better if I'm doing both -- the more likely it is that we'll call me a governor at the end of the day. Because what those ads said is, "I'm a real Montanan."

Does that kind of personal authenticity trump everything else in the minds of voters?

There's more that the big shots from big cities will never understand. I probably shook hands with at least half of the people who voted for me, maybe two-thirds. You can do that in a place where there's only 920,000 people.

But you can't do that when you're running for president. How would you translate that sort of personal appeal into a national campaign?

You're asking me about a national campaign? What the heck would I know about a national campaign?

Look, I started this out by saying that Democrats can win if they lead with their hearts. Let people feel you! Don't try to verbalize. Let them feel you first. If you're not a passionate person -- I happen to be. If I'm for something, you're gonna know it pretty quick. And if I'm agin it, you're gonna know it too. I'm straight about those things. Some people can't do that. Maybe they've had a lot of time in politics, or they're lawyers, or it's just their makeup. And they have all these highfalutin pollsters and media people, and they say, "Well, there's this demographic that kind of bleeds into this demographic, and you don't want to lose these over here because you were on this." I don't believe any of it. I think most people will support you if they know that you'll stand your ground.

Even if they don't stand on the same ground?

That's right.

Is that why Bush won Montana by 20 percentage points -- because people thought he was the kind of guy who'd stand his ground?

Well, that, and he's a Republican. Wasn't he on the ballot with an "R" next to his name?

If that "R" is so important -- and if the West is where Democrats have to win to begin turning things around nationally -- then the party is going to have to figure out a way to overcome it. How can Democrats close the gap in places like Montana?

I understand that the Democrats in the big cities, on the East and the West coasts, have a grave concern about gun control. Frankly, as it turns out, so do Republicans. [California Gov.] Schwarzenegger supports gun control, I think. [New York Gov.] Pataki certainly does, [former New York Mayor] Giuliani does, most of these East Coast Republicans do. So I can appreciate that they've got a problem in their inner cities. But that's not what we have out here in the flyover zone. We have guns because we like them. We have guns because in some ways it just kind of defines who we are. We like having guns around. It's not necessarily that you're out shooting -- it's knowing that you could if you wanted to.

When you crowd a bunch of people together, when you've got people living on top of each other, they're likely to have run-ins. So you need a whole bunch more laws. When you've got more cattle than people and you've got blue sky that goes on almost forever, people have got room to roam without bothering each other. Live and let live.

Are there Democrats who can make that sort of appeal on a national level?

Sure, there's bunches of them. I'm not going to start naming names. I don't know who all the national Democrats are. I can tell you that my pal Billy Richardson is a good guy, a good governor, a big shot. Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas. You know, they still have the Democratic Caucus in a phone booth in Kansas, and she gets elected. So there's two.

Of course, my good friend in Michigan [Jennifer Granholm] -- she can't run unless they do the Schwarzenegger thing, which is unlikely. Ed Rendell, I wish I could do his voice; he's got the greatest voice in the world. Janet Napolitano in Arizona has been very, very successful. And let's not forget Tom Vilsack. He's a wonderful individual.

Howard Dean, who earned an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association as governor, has said almost exactly what you've just said about guns. But people in Montana probably don't think of him as a friend to rural gun owners.

Most people that matter in Montana have never heard of Howard Dean or anybody else we've talked about today. People who are into politics -- they've already decided how they're going to vote not only in 2008 but in 2012. They're not persuadable. The more people follow this, the less persuadable they are. Anybody that knows the names I just talked about is either a hard "R" or a hard "D." They already know how they're going to vote for the rest of their lives.

So Joe and Mary Six-Pack, they don't have time to watch "Hardball With Chris Matthews." They haven't any idea who Pat Buchanan is, or Robert Novak. They don't watch that stuff. They don't read about it. They open the newspaper; they read a couple of headlines on the front page to see if they know anybody that got in a pickle, and then they go right to the sports page or the comics. And if they see something about politics in there -- hoo, they're not reading that.

Don't you think any of it seeps through? The Republicans' involvement in the Terri Schiavo case, for example?

Sure it does. Maybe a little [on] Terri Schiavo because it was blasted on the national news. But I don't think anybody figured out what was going on there, except that it looked to them like it was a big political move by some rascals in Washington.

Do they make any distinction about which "rascals" those were?

You know, Joe and Mary Six-Pack, they don't disassociate. They're pretty much all in the same box.

They may not differentiate among Democrats, either. Again, Howard Dean has a record that's not at all unlike what you're trying to pull off in Montana, but it's hard to imagine Dean as the kind of national candidate who would do well here.

The first time people heard of Howard Dean, they heard of him as some guy from Vermont -- and people vaguely know where that is, but it sounds like it's where lots of hippies live -- and that he was against the war. So even before they saw him on TV, they figured he had a ponytail and a nose ring. Turns out, if they had gone three or four pages deep, they would have found out that the guy was a well-respected, moderate Democrat. But in the course of national politics, you've got about a blink or two to make up your mind whether you like somebody.

And then it was "electability." Democrats were thinking, "Oh gosh, we've just got to win. Let's get somebody that's electable." And they thought, "This guy Kerry, he's a smart guy, a senator; he served in the war, so they can't ding him for that; he voted for the war." So they started making it into a thinking thing rather than using the heart. Now, Kerry may have been the best candidate, but he wasn't selected because he was the best candidate from the heart. He was selected because in Iowa and New Hampshire people intellectualized it. They said -- and remember, this wasn't Joe and Mary Six-Pack making this decision -- "I love Howard Dean, but I think I'll marry John Kerry because Mom and Dad are going to like him better."

You're Catholic, but religion didn't play much of a role in your election.

I went to high school in a monastery. I understand Catholicism. But I don't have a need to carry my religion on my sleeve. It's something I have in my heart. Twenty-five percent of Montana is Catholic. Twenty-four percent are Lutheran. Eighteen to 20 percent are Episcopalian. This is not Baptist country -- I think it's a few percent Baptists. We have pretty mainline religions in Montana.

That's different from the South, where born-again evangelicals can dominate the political debate.

God, guns and gays.

But it's different here, politically?

I think that guns are probably preeminent in a place like Montana. When it comes to religion, people respect your own opinion.

If the question is, Is it important in the flyover areas, the Midwest and the West, to understand something about God, I think it is. I think people are likely to be more God-fearing. Are they in church on Sunday necessarily? No. They might be fishing. People have different ways of getting close to their maker. In Montana, lots of time that means getting out.

But what about the political issues that go along with religion?

Gays and choice, you mean? When you simply say, like I do, "I'm pro-choice -- I just think that's an intensely private decision that every woman and her physician can and should be able to make, period" -- what else is there? That's certainly not someplace for government to be sticking its nose.

When it comes to gay marriage, folks in Montana, they're pretty traditional about who ought to be marrying who. They're not thinking that men ought to be marrying men and women ought to be marrying women. I think that's pretty consistent across the country, except for a few enclaves on the East and West Coast.

John Kerry opposes gay marriage, too. But if you took a poll of Montanans today, I'll bet 85 percent of them would say that he supports it.

Oh, they'd probably think that he married some guy.

But understand that the Bush-Kerry race [didn't] matter in Montana because there was never an ad run in Montana -- not a single ad. It wasn't in play. Kerry didn't come here, Bush didn't come here, no ads were run. People didn't know who the heck they were. The things they heard about Kerry they didn't like from the very beginning, because the things they heard about him were what Karl Rove told them about him.

Many Democrats believe that the determining factor in the election was the war -- and the thought that George W. Bush was the one that would keep Americans safest. Was national security the driving issue in Montana?

No. Most people in Montana have never been to New York City. The twin towers are something they've only seen on television.

And Montanans have served in much higher numbers as a percent of our population in every conflict we've ever had. Part of that is the large number of Indians -- Indians are warriors, some of the greatest warriors in modern times and in ancient times -- and part of it is the rural nature of who we are. And it's one way to demonstrate that you're a stand-up guy, and I respect that.

But were Montanans outraged at the same level as folks in New York City or in other vulnerable cities? Frankly, is al-Qaida coming to Montana? It would be a bad idea for them to come here. To start with, if they show up here and start making some trouble, somebody's just going to shoot their asses and ask questions later.

But the point is, when you live in big cities, you see how many people can be killed by a single event, like flying into a building or a dirty bomb. I just don't believe that Montanans were so touched as they were on the East and West coasts about this. I mean, we were outraged that we were attacked, of course. But I will never know the feeling that somebody who is from New York had to have watching that happen.

How does the Iraq war play in Montana?

Oh, about 50-50, right now.

How does it play with you?

As you know, I lived in the Middle East, and I learned to speak Arabic. I had misgivings from the very beginning. We were told that this incursion was going to make the world a safer place. But that didn't square with me because I knew, in the Middle East, the days of the Crusades are like they happened just a few years ago. Any incursion of the West into Islamic cultures is going to be met with resistance. So now we say that, really, the reason we [went] there was to create democracies, and democracies will spring up [throughout the region].

But here's the problem. Our closet allies in the Middle East would be? Saudi Arabia, with a functional king; Kuwait, with a functional king; Jordan, with a functional king; Egypt, with a -- I don't know -- president for life. Israel, it does have a democratic republic. But what do you think our allies are saying when we're standing there saying, "We are going to let democracy rise up"? Well, that's pretty threatening to them. So I don't know what the endgame is here.

You know, I've had people say to me, "But when you're attacked, you've got respond." I agree. I think we should have gone to Afghanistan and turned over every single rock until we got Osama bin Laden. And I would personally put his head on a stick; I would do that.

That's the place we needed to be. The problem is that somehow we got diverted along the way and we went into Iraq. Now, we had Iraq tamed better than any other country in the world. They couldn't even take off or land a plane or even move a truck in the desert. We had airplanes over Iraq, 24/7, for years. We don't over Iran. So why Iraq? I haven't got the answer yet. I'm still asking the question.

We're there. I support our troops; I support the families. You know what? In Montana, we don't make the decision to go. We just answer when called. This is for the big shots in Washington, D.C. I'm just a rancher from Montana.

And you have the luxury of not having to deal with foreign policy from Helena. You're working instead on domestic issues with Montana's Legislature.

We've gotten just about everything I've wanted: a scholarship program, a healthcare program, a prescription drug program. We passed five [medical malpractice] bills -- five med-mals! -- no tax increases, some economic development bills that are very cool, and a "best and brightest" scholarship program, so every middle-class family in Montana finally can attain the dream to send the next generation to college.

Can the Democrats use an issue like that in a play for "moral values" voters?

Hell, yes. When every mother and father knows that there will be support if they have a kid that deserves the opportunity to make it to the top ... Education is the equalizer. It doesn't matter if you were on third base or were in the dugout when the game started -- you have an opportunity to make it to home plate with education.

And healthcare. You know, in Montana, 20 percent of the people don't have health insurance. They're not indigent, living under bridges someplace or in a culvert with a sleeping bag. Maybe Mom and Dad both work. They say prayers with their kids when they tuck 'em into bed, and then they close the door and they walk down the hall, and they get on their knees and they pray one more time that nobody gets sick because they don't have health insurance. They just can't imagine having a sick child and not being in a position to be able to get the help that they need.

That's something that we've got to fix, and we're fixing it in Montana. We've got a targeted tax credit for small businesses to buy insurance for themselves and their employees. We passed five med-mal bills. If that helps, we'll do it. If making [insurance] more affordable by pooling people together so they can buy insurance will help, we'll do it. We've put significantly more resources into something called the Child Health Insurance Program to get more matching funds from the federal government so that lower-middle-class kids up to 18 will get a healthy start. We're doing it.

And how do you persuade the most conservative voters -- the ones for whom abortion and gay marriage are be-all, end-all issues -- that they should think about education and healthcare as important "moral values" too?

The most conservative voters? The beauty is that I only need about 50 percent to win. The most conservative voters will not even give me a shot. I don't need 100 percent of the vote. Just do the right thing, for God's sake. And if that means I'm only going to be governor for the next three and a half years, so be it. Just tell 'em who are you are, tell 'em what you believe in, and tell 'em in a way that they're gonna believe you.

The Democrats spend a lot of time worrying about how to finesse these social issues.

Please. Please.

Just tell 'em what you are. You know, this polling stuff, having to go out and figure out which way the wind's blowing -- do you believe in something? Did you have something when you started? If you do, tell 'em what it is. You'll be all right. If you're a kook, you're not going to get elected. But if you're real, you're normal, you're halfway bright, and you're willing to stand up -- that's the most important thing.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Democratic Party Gay Marriage Gun Control Guns Healthcare Reform Howard Dean John F. Kerry