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On Brian Schweitzer as VP

Last night, Senator Jon Tester impishly threw Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s name into the ring as a potential VP choice. That set off a bunch of thoughts, because I have a closer perspective on Schweitzer than most bloggers. Without going into too much detail, I’ve worked a short while in Montana politics, enough to feel relatively confident in the following analysis.

The first time I heard Brian Schweitzer speak, I thought: “This guy is going to be President.” That is not a common reaction on my part to politicians. I’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of Democratic politicians speak, and I’ve only had that reaction twice in my lifetime. The first was Barack Obama, the second was Brian Schweitzer.

People have asked me what it was that made me feel so strongly in reaction, and the way I’d put it now is that Brian Schweitzer and Barack Obama are the two “new Democrat” styles that are extremely effective in the post-Clinton era. Both emphasize solutions over partisanship. Both are suspected by Republicans of talking a good game of bipartisanship and hewing to traditional Democratic Party ideology. Both are great communicators, but with different rhetorical strengths. Obama rose from an mainly urban and intellectual background; Schweitzer’s breakthrough is probably the single best example of why the Democrats chose Denver as the convention site this year.

In addition to being a strong speech-giver, Schweitzer is a gifted quote-machine. He regularly delivers the glib, funny ways of both explaining his position on policy and mocking his opponents for their unreasonableness. It’s hard to think of a more effective way of developing popularity among voters who think of themselves as uncomplicated common sense types. His most notable one-liner is actually a counterpose to the legacy of national Clinton branding of the Democratic Party: “Gun control is you control your gun and I’ll control mine.” It’s glib, it’s memorable, it communicates exactly where he stands, it’s populist.

It matters when you can give voters lines like that, because the real sell-job is one regular voter to another. When one guy in the barber shop says, what do you think about this guy Schweitzer, is he one of those Democrats who want to take away everyone’s guns? The other regular guy remembers that line and repeats it, and now the first guy just learned Schweitzer’s position even if he’s a low info voter. Low info voters are the voters with whom Obama has the most trouble. None of the names bandied about in the VP talk are in Schweitzer’s league when it comes to this ability.

This way of speaking is not accidental. Schweitzer has made an amateur study of right wing radio, to understand how to turn the effective glibness those toxic hosts use for their own benefit into his advantage. Schweitzer is a hell of a smart guy. A soil scientist and rancher, he spent 6 years in Saudi Arabia working on irrigation projects. He speaks fluent Arabic and has an intuitive grasp of the region based on real life experience. Certainly that would open him up to the sleazy email “Manchurian Candidate” stuff, especially as the radical Islamic Hussein Osama’s running mate. But I have a feeling, knowing Schweitzer, he’d be asked about it and his response would have people slapping their foreheads in laughter with, “Yes! That’s the perfect reply!”

As far as other stats, Schweitzer is one of Al Giordano’s Catholic governors. He is known for energy policy, which aligns with Obama’s comments about wanting to find a running mate with executive experience and energy policy expertise.

He’s young (52), and if Obama were to somehow lose the presidency this year, I would immediately look into a futures bet on Schweitzer. In my mind, Schweitzer would be the clear front runner for 2012, regardless of whether he’d been on the ticket this time or not.

Now, here are a few halts on the idea. First, I’ve talked directly to family members who seem to honestly be saying Schweitzer doesn’t have these national ambitions. I take those things seriously, but I also know that being asked to be VP would almost certainly be accepted, as Jon Tester said last night. Things change when it’s real, when it’s right there in your lap.

Second, Schweitzer, for all the attention and high profile he’s gotten from Stewart, Colbert, 60 Minutes, the Candy Crowleys and Joe Kleins, as well as his hero status in the Democratic political blog world, Schweitzer actually doesn’t have a big resume. He’s only been governor of a small population state for 4 years. As a good friend who has extensive experience with both Schweitzer and Obama has pointed out, this would not necessarily be the best way to fend off the “inexperience” charge that will be leveled at Obama.

My reaction to that argument is that I take Obama’s confidence at its face value – he is looking for quality people period, and willing to do battle on the attack ground of inexperience if necessary. If the truth is that this X is the right candidate, then Obama picks X and relies on his ability to meet that argument head-on and win. Moreover, I don’t think the mood of the country really cares about length of resume right now. They want people with solutions, and incumbency starts out having to prove itself as a valuable quality rather than part of the problem.

Another argument against Schweitzer, the one I have long thought most persuasive, is that while most have tended to think Montana is undergoing a blue revolution, the Democrats in Montana have a much thinner bench than most realize and his departure to run on a national ticket would hurt Montana Dems badly. Take Schweitzer out of the governor’s mansion, his Lieutenant Governor is a Republican. There’s no obvious replacement. If Schweitzer chooses to accept a VP offer, he knows he’s going to leave a mess and some unhappy allies who are negatively affected.

Now, if Tester says he’d probably take it, he’d probably take it. You notice he hesitated a bit, and I can assure you that the hesitation is all about what the ripples would be back home. Schweitzer is very popular in Montana, he came out of the 2007 Legislative Session debacle looking far better than his Republican counterparts did (in no small part because of his gift for producing quote after quote about the situation that made him look sane, reasonable and the bigger man). But a valid criticism is that Schweitzer’s roster of drafted Dems to run for legislative seats in 2006 was weak at best. Montana had the only state legislative chamber that flipped blue to red in the 2006 wave. The 100-member House had been barely blue, and by 3 votes in Laurel, Republicans took back the chamber, leading to a nightmarishly confrontational Session. (Ironically, the field staffer assigned to Laurel was one who Schweitzer’s brother had to be talked down from demanding his dismissal for a harmlessly-intended but poorly executed joke in a local meeting just weeks before the election.)

Montana Republicans have it in for Schweitzer. They want his head on a platter. They hate his popularity. They were willing to go nuclear in 2007’s Session to undermine him. Ironically, while Schweitzer will win easy re-election against the painfully nasal Roy Brown, it’s an uphill battle to hold the 26-24 Senate, much less take back the 51-49 House (one of those is a Constitution Party member who caucuses with Republicans). Particularly if Schweitzer’s candidate drafting ability does not dramatically improve. If Republicans have both chambers in the 2009 Session, the #1 agenda will be to thwart Schweitzer from having any legacy after 8 years to go national.

The upshot of the Montana situation is that if Schweitzer grasps that (and I think he’s savvy enough to see all the angles which are more numerous and complex than I’ve outlined), he might just take an offer from Obama if it comes. It’s risky, because he might leave behind an ugly state situation in a vacuum and I do think he cares about that.

Will an offer from Obama come? I am probably the only poker player who has the mp3 of this year’s Mansfield-Metcalfe Obama speech on his iPod shuffle. When I hear that speech, it’s clear from Obama’s reference to Schweitzer that he has great admiration for the governor’s skill. “And how about this guy?” is how he starts out. It’s obvious Obama has great appreciation for Schweitzer’s talent. Obama clearly sees Schweitzer’s gifts. You know Obama’s thought about him as VP.

But from my reports, which well could be incomplete, is that Schweitzer had not exactly embraced Obama. I don’t know why, and again I stress that this is from people I trust who have proven to have great feel for Montana politics in the past, but I cannot guarantee its accuracy. Without going into the personal, I know at least one person very close to Brian who had flirted with the Clinton camp from the early going. It adds up to there being something less than the enthusiastic support offered by Kaine, Sebelius, Richardson, Napolitano, etc.

One big advantage of adding Schweitzer to the ticket would be his ability to play the perfect VP role of constantly tweaking John McCain in the language that would reach the so called “working class white vote” that has the collective punditocracy up in “Oh Noesville!!1!!11!” Tweaking John McCain from two different rhetorical angles would resonate on a much wider platform. And tweaking thin-skinned John McCain drives John McCain out of his mind with rage. All you have to do is quote the guy accurately and he snaps. Brian Schweitzer would keep his cool. He’s very hard to rattle. When Mike Lange memorably went on an end-of-session, profanity-laced diatribe against Schweitzer, Schweitzer played it masterfully by not taking the bait and emphasizing Mike Lange in a bad moment was not the Mike Lange he knew. Game, set, match.

The ultimate question: do I think Schweitzer will be offered the job? No. Barely. Gut sense. Perfectly content with being wrong.

Do I think Schweitzer would take it if offered? Yes. I was beginning to go that way, and Tester’s hesitating yes pushed me there last night.

(By the way, Jon Tester is just a tremendous human being. He is also the only Senator who, if I ran into him tomorrow, my first instinct would be to give him shit. He’s that real of a guy. I’m honored I got to help him. Quick story: A few days before the election, I asked him if he could do anything what would he want to do right after it was over. I believed him when he said he’d want to put on a fake beard for about three days and just go drink at a bar. I love that guy. I digress.)

Still, if I’m Obama, I’d look at Schweitzer long and hard. I do think the Clintons are determined for it not to be Richardson (I have been hearing all the zipper rumors too, and if those have any truth you can be sure that the Clintons know what they are and will have no remorse about submarining Judas with that info, unlinked to them of course).

Like a lot of you, I’d been thinking about a female choice but it does make Obama look like he had to pick “a woman” and not “the most qualified” even if Obama deems Sebelius to be the most qualified. He’d be open to that annoying, nagging charge regardless of its truth. I hadn’t thought of how Clinton would react to Obama picking a woman that wasn’t her, but it makes a certain kind of sense that Clinton would find it unacceptable. If she has any future chances to be the nominee, it’s important to her that she still is the first. (Again, I think there is absolutely no chance of her ever being president. That’s just my opinion, now that half her own party feels about her close to the way they feel about Joe Lieberman and Republicans still galvanizingly hate her. But I realize that she may be oblivious to this and will react badly if Obama picks a woman VP for this reason.)

Brian Schweitzer is a noted early morning devourer of political blogs; let’s hope he’s found his way over here to 538 and posts something in the comments to steer me back on course where I’ve erred in the analysis (ha ha). I’d also love to hear Sirota’s take on the whole idea, because he knows Schweitzer’s world far better than I do.