It’s amazing what politicians will say when they think no one back home will find out. Montana’s Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, recently drew some unwanted attention when footage made its way onto the Internet from a speech in Ohio, in which he said things that aren’t likely to make many friends back home:
All over Montana, you can walk into a bar, a café or even a school or a courthouse and just listen for a while as people talk to each other, and you will hear somebody, before very long, say something outrageously racist about the people who’ve lived in Montana for 10,000 years.
Schweitzer isn’t wrong that one can sometimes still hear racist things from the mouths of certain Montanans, statements that can make one’s toes curl with disgust and embarrassment. I wish he were wrong about that. (So those who might be inclined to generate faux outrage over this article should give it a rest.) But as someone who has been in his share of Montana bars, cafés, and schools (but not courthouses, thankfully), I can say with confidence that Schweitzer is being preposterous when he implies that you can’t turn around in our state without hearing racist drivel. It is the rare person who says such stuff in Montana — just like everywhere else I’ve lived in this country.
The governor made his remarks while bragging about his “Indian Education for All” program in public schools — a most laudable endeavor. But one suspects that Schweitzer was doing something much more calculating than simply running through a list of his policy accomplishments. He was doing a red-state Democrat two-step.
Schweitzer recently got a little press when Politico floated his name among potential 2016 Democratic candidates for president, and that sort of talk gets a politician thinking. To win support from the national party’s base of activists and donors, he would need something a bit different from his usual shtick.
For years, Schweitzer has played a sort of hick cowboy, complete with boots, bolo-tie, and “aw shucks” buffoonery. Earlier this year, he showed up on David Letterman’s set after spending the day as a sort of gubernatorial street vendor, hawking huckleberry jam and Montana jerky in the Big Apple. Even more famously, he was the Obama surrogate who dropped the awkward “born on a polygamy commune” comment about Mitt Romney’s father.
Governor Schweitzer isn’t a bad sort — not at all. I’ve met and chatted pleasantly with him, and I’ve even petted the ubiquitous “First Dog,” Jag (who I am convinced is a good Republican dog that just wants to be out herding livestock and making an honest living rather than hanging around politicians). Think of Schweitzer as Montana’s Bill Clinton — but without a Monica Lewinsky. Like Clinton, the “good guv” is a Democrat who will leave office with decent approval ratings thanks to being repeatedly rescued by Republican legislators. Like Clinton, Schweitzer has had the privilege of loudly fighting the mean budget-cutting Republicans for the benefit of his friends on the left, and then standing at the front of the line to take credit for the state’s relative fiscal health that resulted from said budget-cutting.
It’s not that Schweitzer’s cowboy routine is unusual (or in his case, entirely inauthentic, since he comes from a rural background); the point is that image counts on Montana Avenue in Billings no less than on Madison Avenue in New York. Governor Schweitzer understands this, and his typical campaign ad features him sitting on the back of a horse, reins in one hand and a gun in the other, talking about the need for socialized medicine. I exaggerate… but only just.
We Republicans have had our own share of politicians in cowboy hats and boots. Our dear Ronald Reagan looked every inch the cowboy in those terrific photo shoots, and those of us who grew up riding horses on our families’ ranches loved the guy. In Virginia, that bastion of the Wild West, we have George Allen, the once and possibly future GOP Senator who is never to be found without his cowboy boots and Copenhagen. I mean, sure, there was the novel (and TV series) The Virginian, but Owen Wister (from the well-known cow-town of Philadelphia) at least put his protagonist in Wyoming before he started roping and riding and winning the local schoolteacher’s hand.
And of course, President Bush the younger — he of the oldest ranching family in Connecticut — often duded up in his cowboy hat and boots and talked in clipped phrases, clearing out brush at his place in Texas. He had been governor in the genuine cowboy state of Texas, and he married a nice schoolteacher (just like the Virginian), so most of us gave him a break even though we doubted he ever wore that much hat to frat parties at Yale.
The reason a Republican candidate might play the cowboy is obvious to most, but for Democrats, the calculus is a little different, and Governor Schweitzer is a good case in point. The smart set in Montana (yes, even Montana has a smart set) is embarrassed by rural residents who make a living cutting down trees or raising animals for slaughter, and who generally hold retrograde views on life and the universe.
On the other hand, they are even more embarrassed by losing elections. So eight years ago, they cast their lot with Schweitzer, with his ten-gallon rhetoric and Will Rogers quips, hoping he would lead them to victory. Schweitzer obliged, all the while giving them a little wink and nudge that meant: “Don’t worry, I’m just putting on an act here.” It worked.
On the national stage, the advantage for a Democrat who can play the cowboy isn’t that urban sophisticates have a thing for country folk. It’s rather that it allows one to stand out from the crowd. Would Schweitzer be mentioned by Politico as a candidate for President if he were just another a brie-eating Congressman from California? Unlikely.
In one sense, I suppose we in Montana really should be flattered to see one of our native sons on David Letterman or a must-read site like Politico. But one can’t help but feel that Governor Schweitzer is being treated a bit like an exotic pet: It’s cool to add one to your collection, but you’re destined to return it to the store when the novelty wears off.
Unless he self-domesticates and does the red-state Democrat “two-step,” that is. What gives the game away is when a guy like Schweitzer shows up in boots and bolo-tie to do the “aw shucks” in front of a “blue” audience — and then burnishes his street cred by lamenting dutifully about how racist his fellow Montanans are. Wink, nudge…