September 5, 2005


Putting the Big Sky In a Populist Frame: Montana's Rookie Democratic Governor Shows Party What It Takes in Red State (Blaine Harden, September 5, 2005, Washington Post)

The Democratic governor of this red state was discussing his "God-given" political gifts while seated in his gubernatorial aircraft.

"You know, if John Kerry could do what I do, he'd be president," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was a mint farmer until last November and is now being talked about as the kind of brassy populist the Democrats need to win back the White House. [...]

"Be likable, be self-deprecating, don't be a know-it-all using a lot of big words," said Schweitzer, 50, who mixes plain speaking with ranch dressing: blue jeans, a bolo tie, cowboy boots and, always somewhere nearby, a border collie named Jag.

"In politics, it doesn't matter what the facts are," he said. "It matters what the perceptions are. It is the way you frame it."

In Montana, he continued, the best way to frame an issue is to get horses and guns into the picture. Schweitzer arrived at this epiphany, he said, after getting beaten in 2000 in a race against Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

That was Schweitzer's first go at elective politics and, in the wound-licking that followed, he found that men in Montana were 11 percent less likely to vote for him than were women. For his gubernatorial campaign, Schweitzer hired focus groups to find out why.

He learned that a significant percentage of Montana men are mule-headed, unwilling to change their minds on issues, even when presented with information showing that their views are not supported by facts.

"So, I started doing my ads while I was sitting on a horse or holding a gun," Schweitzer said. "I spoke to men visually and showed them I am like them. Hell, I can be on a horse and talk about health care.

"Ninety percent of them don't ride horses and many of them don't shoot a gun, but my ads said visually that I understand Montana. My gender gap disappeared. I think I have just summed up why Democrats lose elections."

Schweitzer had something else to add about Kerry, who had visited him here in Montana just the week before.

"When he goes out to meet people, he doesn't come off real," Schweitzer said. "It is like you can see the price tag on the barrel," he said of television appearances Kerry made last year with a shotgun in his hand. [...]

Schweitzer playfully plays down ambitions outside Montana: "I am just a Montana farmer. I don't know if what I say or do is exportable. It is a long way from Little League to playing for the Yankees."

What he has on his plate in this red state is hard enough for a Democrat, he said. When his plane landed in Dillon, he had a chance to demonstrate -- at a meeting with Beaverhead County commissioners about roads on federal land.

Bush, in overturning a Clinton-era order that made almost 60 million acres of national forest off-limits to road-building, has asked governors to identify areas where roads should not be built. The commissioners in Beaverhead County, where beef rules and resentment of Washington runs high, are eager to open up vast stretches of roadless federal land.

Gingerly, Schweitzer explained why that might not work. First, he said, the Bush administration has no money to maintain the roads it has already built, let alone build new ones. Second -- and this was the tricky part in a room full of Republican ranchers -- Schweitzer said that Montana was no longer a state dominated by ranchers, miners and timber companies.

He never once uttered the word "environmentalism" -- the closest he came to that was mentioning the need to protect land for "huntin' and fishin.' " Nor did he unleash statistics about how retirement and investment income from newcomers has come to dominate the state economy.

"I'm an aggie," said Schweitzer, who has a master's degree in soil science from Montana State University and who worked in Saudi Arabia for seven years helping the royal family build a dairy farm. "Agriculture will continue to be a large part of who we are in Montana. But growth depends on access to public land and quality of life."

Back on the gubernatorial airplane, Schweitzer noted that he had explained the new facts of life in Montana "without scaring anybody."

"Look, if I stand in front of voters and tell them, 'Everything you thought you knew about Montana's economy is wrong,' then who in the hell is going to vote for someone like that?" he said.

"Didn't we learn anything from Al Gore?"

Pretend you're masculine but concede to the GOP on the issues is hardly a formula for success generally.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 5, 2005 9:27 AM

"He learned that a significant percentage of Montana men are mule-headed, ..."

Not only Montana men.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 5, 2005 9:38 AM

I am amazed by the contempt this "populist" Governor shows for his constituents. When is he up for re-election?

Posted by: sammler at September 5, 2005 9:44 AM

The message seems to be if he dumbs it down enough and puts pretty pictures on things he can explain it to those dumb GOPers. How is this different from all the other Dem elites?

Posted by: AWW at September 5, 2005 9:44 AM

It works for one election, I guess.

Posted by: pj at September 5, 2005 9:48 AM

It does make Schweitzer a possible VP choice for Hillary, since he's smoothed-tounged, not a lawyer and knows euphamisms for liberal issues that might get past a few voters in the swing states. Also, by being so wary of challenging the Montana GOP directly on the key issues, it's a safe bet he would fade into the background as VP easily, since it's likely that whomever the missus might pick, she's not going for a Dick Cheney type of running mate.

Posted by: at September 5, 2005 9:49 AM

So, Gov. Schweitzer goes off to Washington to parade himself in front of the big boys, letting them know that he is savvy and right on the issues but just burdened down by a rube electorate. And, he has such complete contempt for his fellow Montanans that he feels secure that this interview can appear in WaPo and the folks back home will never find out how he really feels about them. What a cynical, egotistical, hypocritical ba****d! The perfect Democratic candidate.

Posted by: L. Rogers at September 5, 2005 11:29 AM

Hillary already has her governor/lapdog/running mate in place, alleged Hispanic Richardson of New Mexico, currently wowing them south of border with his fancy footwork.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 5, 2005 11:49 AM

So are we gonna see Hillary sitting on a donkey, and telling everyone that she represents the Democratic party? Will she wear chaps? McCain riding an elephant? Richardson doing the Mexican hat dance? Did I miss anybody?

Posted by: AllenS at September 5, 2005 1:05 PM

Major B.S. alert! Sportmen's interests are stongly in support of access roads into Federal lands. "Huntin' and fishin'" are not promoted if the only ones hunting and fishing are the wolves and the bears.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 5, 2005 1:18 PM

As the 2008 election approaches, people are going to begin to realize that W's boots are way too big to be easily filled. Surprise, surprise.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 5, 2005 1:18 PM

Didn't this guy see the Kerry duck hunting commercials?

Posted by: ratbert at September 7, 2005 3:37 PM