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The Life of Brian

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 28, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Who Owns Bipartisanship?

There are many possible explanations for the now-resolved Barak Obama/John McCain dust-up, but election lawyer Bob Bauer here hits on the one that I think really matters in the long run: It’s all about preserving McCain’s unique and unprecedented role as the second most powerful force in American politics, which is based on his power to define bipartisanship.

 Bipartisanship works for Senator McCain, in lobbying reform as elsewhere:  it works politically, and helps him realize goals quite partisan in nature.

For Senator McCain to succeed in this effort, he must be able to distinguish the partisan from the bipartisan, and he has proposed to do so, with wide support from the press, on his own authority. This has been his aim in lobbying reform, and when frustrated in aims personally and-in this instance-politically important to him, it is his practice to assail, in vituperative terms and a righteous tone, those who contest his judgments.

That’s exactly right. It explains what was oddest in the underlying issue in the fight: Obama suggested taking lobbying reform legislation through the normal committee process, whereas McCain wanted to set up a bipartisan task force. For this, Obama is criticized as partisan. If the Democrats controlled Senate committees and were in the habit of rolling things through on party-line votes, that might be a legitimate charge. But in a Republican Senate, how could the committee process be more partisan, for Obama, than McCain’s?

It isn’t, of course. It just wouldn’t meet McCain’s definition of bipartisan.

In addition to Bauer’s point that McCain-branded bipartisanship "helps him realize goals quite partisan in nature," it should be noted that McCain-branded bipartisanship is a corollary of one-party control of Congress. The two phenomena are completely interdependent. Ordinary bipartisanship in either House is a product in short supply, and McCain has effectively monopolized what there is of it. And to the extent that, with support from the press, he is empowered "to distinguish the partisan from the bipartisan," he controls that resource, and the credibility that comes with it, to his own ends.

Think about it: Since the actually bipartisan achievement of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, there have been mostly two ways to put together winning coalitions in Congress -- the DeLay way (Republican-written, with Democrats invited to come along but given no voice) and the McCain way (Campaign Finance Reform, the torture amendment). McCain has been almost a safety valve for the inherent impulse toward bipartisanship or the occasional desire to challenge Bush. But he has control of exactly how far it goes, and uses that control to position himself exactly where he needs to be on the scale between independence and sufficient loyalty to win over the GOP base. For example, when Bush adds his legendary "never-mind" signing statement to the torture amendment, no reaction really matters other than McCain’s. If he complains but shrugs, it’s automatically okay.

But if the power of the DeLay system were to break down -- as I believe it is beginning to -- then there would be more outlets for bipartisanship. If other Republicans were willing to break ranks occasionally and stay broken, then there would be multiple ways to put together winning coalitions in Congress -- which is the usual state of affairs. If there were a real possibility that Obama and others could work through the Government Affairs Committee process, working with Senators Collins, Voinovich and Chafee, then McCain would have less power to set the terms, either of acceptable reform or acceptable bipartisanship.

I respect McCain, but as a conservative well suited to the Senate seat he took over from Barry Goldwater, not as some kind of transcendent figure beyond all party and all ideology. I wish most conservatives were like him. And I also think, based on my own experience in government, that forming bipartisan coalitions in which legislators of different viewpoints work together to solve problems is a healthier way to govern the country than the anomalous system of one-party rule or asymmetrical partisanship of the last five years, and usually it’s the only way. McCain has attained a strange kind of power that will, ironically, disappear when there are other outlets for actual bipartisanship. And that’s what I think he’s raging against. It’s nothing personal.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 9, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack