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January 15, 2014 4:07 PM Schweitzer as the Anti-Obama

By Ed Kilgore

There’s a lot of buzz today about an interview that MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin secured with former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has been making noises about running for president. Here are the money graphs:

Schweitzer is rubbing his chin, looking up at the ceiling, searching - unsuccessfully - for just the right words. The question was simple enough: Is there a single thing President Obama has done that you consider a positive achievement?
Finally, he spoke.
“My mother, God rest her soul, told me ‘Brian, if you can’t think of something nice to say about something change the subject,’” he said.
But he couldn’t help himself, slamming Obama’s record on civil liberties (the NSA revelations were “un-effing-believable”), his competency (“They just haven’t been very good at running things”), and above all, Obamacare (“It will collapse on its own weight”).
Eventually, he paused to acknowledge Obama’s historic role as the first black president. But by that standard, Obama’s usefulness ended the day he took the oath of office.

Unless this was some sort of screwed-up revival of Teddy Kennedy’s famously disastrous Roger Mudd interview in 1980, Schweitzer’s sure taking an unorthodox route to a Democratic presidential candidacy. Yes, his complaints about Obama’s record are shared by quite a few progressive folk. But generally trashing Obama—or for that matter, trashing HRC—is not the way to build a base for a presidential campaign. According to the latest Gallup numbers, Obama’s job approval rating among self-identified liberal Democrats stands at 84%. That is rather high. Among African-Americans, who play a huge role in many Democratic presidential primaries, it’s at 86% (it’s only 58% among Hispanics, but that includes a decent number of Republicans).

As I’ve observed on more than one occasion, left-bent Democratic presidential nominating candidacies have failed again and again because of poor support from minority voters. There’s virtually nothing about Brian Schweitzer that gives him a natural connection to these voters (unless you count his reported proficiency in Arabic as appealing to Muslims). Making common cause with Republicans in Obama-bashing isn’t going to help.

In some ways, Schweitzer seems like a blast from the past. As Sarlin notes:

After George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, progressives immersed themselves in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” a book that theorized Republicans used their blue-collar “authenticity” to trick working-class Americans into voting against their own economic interests. On sites like Daily Kos and MyDD, some activists saw Schweitzer as a logical antidote.
“He counters the cultural language of the right, which is not just policy - it’s, ‘Those New York or Cambridge liberals and academics are trying to change our lives!’” David Sirota, a progressive author and activist who worked on Schweitzer’s campaigns, told msnbc.

But while Sirota still carries a torch for Schweitzer, others of his early fan club seem to have cooled their ardor. There’s Markos Moulitsas, who once avidly promoted a theory that a libertarian-inflected Western Populism might be the wave of the future. From Sarlin:

[E]ven some of Schweitzer’s former supporters are unsure how seriously to take his hints at a presidential bid.
“If Hillary runs, then there’s little he could do except merit ‘side-story’ status,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas said in an e-mail. “But even if Hillary doesn’t run, I think he’s damaged himself with the netroots wing of the party by refusing to run for Senate this year.”

That may kind of sum it up. At a time when Democrats are frantically trying to hold onto control of the Senate, Schweitzer talked about running for Max Baucus’ seat and then bailed. Next thing you knew, he was talking about running for president. Most Democratic activists think they need a viable Senate candidate in Montana more than they need an openly anti-Obama presidential candidate. From that perspective, Schweitzer looks narcissistic, and that’s not a personality trait likely to ignite a crusade.

Maybe I’m just wrong. I met Schweitzer back when he was running for the Senate in 2000—before he had any national ideological profile at all—and thought he was an odd but intense man afire with self-regard. Some fans out West have long thought he had some personal magic along with the right positioning to win red states. If he keep going to Iowa, we’ll soon know if that activist-rich state gives him traction—or a strong heave-ho.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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