I finally had the opportunity yesterday to see Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer in action, in a speech at the Center for American Progress. I’ve been fascinated by the Schweitzer cult since his election last year, not because I don’t think it’s cool that a straight-shooting Democrat could win the Montana statehouse in the same year that the Democratic presidential nominee got 38% of the vote in that state, but because it wasn’t really that unusual for a Democrat to win a governorship in a "red" state. After all, Democrats govern Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, even Dick Cheney’s Wyoming. Janet Napolitano, Brad Henry, Katherine Sebelius, and Dave Freudenthal are every bit as popular as Schweitzer, but don’t get the national notice. (The wonderful Napolitano, the only other member of this group that I’ve met/seen in person is an exception.)
I recently finished a review of four new books about how to revive the Democratic Party -- which I’ll link to here when it’s available -- and underlying each book was a sort of psychodrama for the soul of the party in which the contenders are, on one side, an unnamed chorus called "John Kerry’s advisors" -- timid, out of touch, and living in comfortable ease by skimming the media buys of decades of bad ads for failed candidates -- and on the other side, always, Brian Schweitzer.
So, my verdict on Schweitzer in person: Extremely impressive. Completely at ease in his own skin, which I think in the Bush era is part of his appeal. The Bolo Tie, the boots, the jeans, the windbreaker in a room where almost every other man is wearing a suit and tie would all be affectations on someone else but seem entirely genuine for Schweitzer. I was surprised by how much he wanted to talk about energy, even though that wasn’t the main topic of the speech. He handled Iraq deftly by shifting it to energy, speaking movingly about attending service members’ funerals and how it recommitted him to the idea that never again should we have to invade another country because of our dependence on foreign oil. Not quite, "No war for oil," but close. And yet not quite an answer to the "what do we do now?" problem. But he uses energy as a theme to cover a lot of ground: the need for a president to call for shared sacrifice, the value of investing in education, as well as the environment and foreign policy. If the political vision inherent in the Apollo Alliance were embodied in one person, it would be Schweitzer.
In personality, he seems like the kind of person who enjoys explaining complicated things in an easy-going and simple way, without seeming condescending. That seemed like it would be a refreshing change from the inane platitudes of the current president. (I admit I was sort of sizing Schweitzer up as Vice Presidential material, although four years as governor of a state with fewer than a million people and no prior political experience is probably just a little too little experience for 2008.) And he seemed to have an ability to make an idea like biodiesel development exciting while being precise and modest about it -- "this could replace 15% of our domestic oil consumption, which isn’t a lot but would get us back to the import levels of the late ’70s." That’s another trait that seems useful for the politics of the near-future, where big promises are likely to lead to disappointment.
The talk was entitled, "The Resurgence of Progressive Politics in the West," but other than his health care policies, there was little that was obviously "progressive" about it. I’m not sure whether that’s a problem or not. Schweitzer sells himself and a set of policies that are identified with him, and increasingly with other Democrats in the West. The policies over time make their own label. And using Schweitzer as an example of what all Democrats should be like raises the question, Is the point to be like Brian Schweitzer (which is easy if your name is Brian Schweitzer and those boots are yours, not so easy otherwise) or is the point to be yourself, talk about what you care about, and don’t be afraid of the political consequences that "John Kerry’s advisors" tell you are around every corner? I hope it’s the latter.
But the talk was a reminder of how incredibly important it is for the face of the Democratic Party to be governors. Governors can say "I did" and "I created," rather than "I proposed," "I was the first co-sponsor of..." and "I consistently voted against..." Nothing was more important to the long-term success of the conservative movement than its governors in the 1990s. In the mid-1990s, there were only a handful of Democratic governors in big states -- Hunt in North Carolina and Chiles in Florida, nearing the end of their careers, Carnahan in Missouri, Zell Miller in Georgia -- and all through the Upper Midwest and Northeast, voters saw conservative Republican governors who were effective (thanks to an economic boom and some slick postpone-the-pain tax moves) and mostly non-divisive. That’s one reason that when George W. Bush came forward as a compassionate conservative, it was a familiar and comfortable idea. Take away Newt Gingrich and the takeover of Congress, and the Republican Party might be every bit as strong today. But take away the dominance of Republican governors through the ’90s, and I doubt we would have this era of one-party control in the ’00’s. I want Democrats to win back at least one house of Congress in 2006, if only to stop the worst policies, force a confrontation on taxes and the budget, and to be able to issue some subpoenas, but for the long-term, successful Democratic governors will be at least as important. The governors I mentioned above all seem to be cruising to reelection; add Democratic victories in New York, Ohio, Maryland, Arkansas, Missouri, and protect the Midwesterners who are in some cases reaping the consequences of their predecessors’ economic scams, and you have the recipe for a resurgence of progressive politics not just in the West, but everywhere. And perceived-successful governors not only make four of the last five presidents, they also make unbeatable Senate candidates.