By John Seiler | for Watchdog.org
HELENA — Outgoing Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has spent eight careful years preparing for a presidential bid. The proof is in his actions.
Though he recently pooh-poohed his potential candidacy with, “I’m a little-known governor of small rural state and I don’t (know) about any of that business,” few believe he isn’t considering a run at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
At 57, he knows the score. In 1976, peanut farmer Gov. Jimmy Carter won the presidency from Georgia, a medium-small state with just 12 electoral votes. (It now has 16.) In 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton, from rural Hope, Ark., grabbed the Oval Office, then kept it in 1996. In those years, as in 2012, Arkansas had six electoral votes.
And although President Obama officially comes from Illinois, he was raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, which has four electoral votes.
For both major parties, the trick of winning the presidency is to win the party base in the primaries, but not in a way that offends moderate and non-committed voters in the general election. In the recent plebiscite, Mitt Romney ran to the right during the GOP primaries, in part to erase his record as a moderate governor of Massachusetts. That made it difficult for him to slide back to the left during the general election, especially because he had to keep re-establishing his right-wing bona fides to maintain trust with a Republican base that still placed its faith in him.
Schweitzer’s great asset is that he has been a popular governor in a state that reliably votes Republican in presidential elections, forcing him to be moderate on many issues. But it’s also a state that has a long history of union activism, allowing him to establish a record on labor and other issues dear to the Democratic base.
As part of such a strategy, throw in some down-to-earth escapades involving ranching and guns, and sometimes buck an unpopular (in Montana) Democratic president. Such has been the recent strategy of all successful Democrats in Montana, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, just re-elected; state Attorney General Steve Bullock, just elected to replace Schweitzer in the governor’s chair; and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.
Several actions this year show Schweitzer aiming to inject himself into the veins of Democratic primary voters.
In August, Schweitzer opened a new health clinic for 11,000 state government employees and their dependents. “The administration said an actuarial analysis shows the state employee health plan could save more than $100 million over five years,” reported the Billings Gazette.
Expanding and centralizing health care is always a winner with Democrats. And the savings would be a plus with independents and moderate Republicans. Even if the savings don’t hold up, Schweitzer could say he left office with the money in the bank, and any later problems were somebody else’s fault.
In September, Schweitzer even pushed for national single-payer health care. Reported the Daily Kos on Sept. 30: “Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, not willing to wait for the Affordable Care Act to kick in in two or three years, is challenging the federal government to start having a dialogue about real health care reform now by allowing Montana to set up a system modeled on ‘SaskCare,’ the Saskatchewan health system, the first universal health care system among the Canadian provinces.”
Terrified of leaving his state with any sort of voter-intimidating debt, Schweitzer proposed a fix to Montana’s nearly $4 billion pension deficit earlier this year. He blamed Republicans for creating the mess that he, the Democratic white knight riding in on his trusty steed — or his dog, Jagg — would have to fix.
Some complained the bill wouldn’t go far enough to fix the problem, but it might go as far as Iowa in January 2016.
In June, Schweitzer appealed to national labor unions by promising staggering 10 percent pay hikes through a two-year process. He pledged the hikes, slated to cost more than $100 million, during negotiations with Treasure State labor interests.
Republicans say the pay raises represent a non-starter and will hammer out their own wage and salary hikes for state workers, sure to be much less than what the governor promised. That only helps Schweitzer’s case, however, because he can lay blame at the feet of those rascally Republicans for blocking his efforts to adequately compensate state workers.
Either way, Schweitzer wins the scrum, a victory that could woo labor-loving Hawkeye State caucus-goers.
Finally, earlier this month, reported the Billings Gazette, “The Schweitzer administration has submitted draft legislation to expand Medicaid in 2014 to extend health coverage to 80,000 low-income Montanans now without it.”
But just last July, Schweitzer attacked the Obama administration for foisting new Medicaid costs on the states. “Unlike the federal government, Montana can’t just print money,” he huffed in a statement. “We have a budget surplus, and we’re going to keep it that way.”
Perhaps his national ambitions forced his hand here. He couldn’t be known as the uncaring Democratic governor who denied health care to 80,000 sickly Montanans, could he?
Of course not.
Bill Clinton was known as “Slick Willie.” Welcome to Slick Schwartzie.
Contact John Seiler at [email protected]