But if disaster were to strike in drought-stricken Montana, many of the people who would be expected to fight the fires are half a world away.
Fully half of Montana’s National Guard — and most of its helicopters — are deployed in Iraq. And Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is fired up about it.
Schweitzer wants to start a dialogue about the way the military has changed its ratio of active-duty to Reserve and Guard forces — a policy in place long before the war in Iraq but one whose full impact is only now being felt.
“One of the things they didn’t consider in this policy,” said Schweitzer, “is that there are governors who are commanders-in-chief of the Guard and they have important missions for them at home.”
It is this willingness to criticize Republican policymakers in plainspoken ways that has some Democratic activists touting Schweitzer as a dark-horse candidate for president in 2008.
“I’m still waiting to see if the Democrats will get behind a pro-choice, red-state governor, who says what he means and means what he says,” wrote Bob Brigham, co-creator of the Swing State Project, a Web log affiliated with a political action committee for Democratic bloggers. “Bonus points for a western candidate, double bonus points for speaking Arabic. Triple bonus points for a dog named Jag.”
Schweitzer’s supporters think the governor, a rancher and farmer who picked a Republican state Senator to run with him as lieutenant governor last year, has a knack for critiquing GOP policies in a way that sounds more populist than partisan.
Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is also backing Schweitzer, whom he called “a genuine version of Bush’s fake ranch.”
Because Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is seen as the overwhelming early favorite for the Democratic nomination, and because so many better-known politicians are gearing up for 2008, the idea of Schweitzer running for president may seem preposterous. Brigham doesn’t think so.
“What do the insiders know?” he asked.
Schweitzer has been on the job for only six months, and his advisers expect him to run for re-election — and not president — in 2008. But the blunt-speaking, gun-toting, scotch-swilling governor has already won a following in the blogosphere among Democrats who think the rancher-politician from Big Sky Country might represent the party’s best shot to take back the White House.
As the conflict in Iraq continues to rage, Schweitzer has won particular plaudits in recent weeks for bringing the National Guard issue back home. In March, he requested that the Pentagon rotate Montana’s National Guard personnel and equipment out of Iraq during the state’s fire season, which runs from late July through September. Schweitzer was told Montana would have to rely on guard personnel from other states if the wildfires get out of hand.
“I ran that up the flag pole with them and they — near as I can tell — just dismissed it,” he said. “‘Who is some governor from Montana to think that he has some kind of authority to even request this kind of thing?’ They were incredulous.”
Schweitzer also was turned down when he requested permission to visit Montana National Guard troops serving in Iraq. He said he hoped to see conditions on the ground so he could begin to address the guard’s recruitment and retention problems.
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