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It’s forest fire season in the Mountain West.
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.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) submitted a new request on Schweitzer’s behalf to the White House Military Office last month, and the letter was referred to the Pentagon last week. As of press time, Schweitzer was still waiting to hear whether he would receive permission to accompany the adjutant general of Montana’s National Guard when he goes to Iraq and Afghanistan July 17-30.
Schweitzer recently told Salon that he would “personally” put Osama Bin Laden’s “head on a stick.” But the governor maintains just as firmly that he would not have voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq on the basis of what was known in 2002 — a position that separates him from Clinton and some other potential White House candidates.
“The numbers didn’t add up for me,” he said.
For seven years in the 1980s, Schweitzer, who is Catholic, lived side-by-side with Muslims in Saudi Arabia while developing more than 28,000 acres of irrigated cropland.
“Time in Middle-Eastern Islamic culture is different. They view the crusades like they were yesterday,” Schweitzer said. “When any political leader in America uses the term crusade, you can hardly imagine the kind of angst that you get in the Islamic world. That would be like waving a Confederate flag at an NAACP meeting in Alabama.”
Schweitzer said he doesn’t know what the president’s “end game” in Iraq is.
“We now have the greatest part of our military force sitting smack-dab in the Middle East,” he said. “It is true that Iraq is full of al Qaeda and lots of bad guys — we’ve attracted them like honey to come and fight us.”
“He’s against orthodoxy,” said Karl Struble, the media consultant who handled Schweitzer’s unsuccessful 2000 run for Senate and his winning 2004 race for governor. “In my latest conversations with him, he’s been asking, ‘Why aren’t we producing more energy here in America so that we are not beholden to a bunch of oil sheiks?’”
In particular, the governor, who holds a master’s degree in soil science, wants to convert the millions of tons of coal reserves the state owns into oil and other petroleum products. The coal-conversion technology, first developed in 1923, becomes profitable when the cost of oil exceeds $35 per barrel. He also signed a bill designed to boost ethanol production in the state.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane doesn’t think anyone can be elected president in 2008 who is not seen as strong on national security. But the former spokesman to then-Vice President Al Gore does not think Schweitzer is at risk of looking weak.
“The way he communicates, the way he looks, the way he talks — he obviously is a hunter,” Lehane said. “His whole character and personality profile make it clear that he is no softie.”
Schweitzer also has taken issue with the Bush administration’s domestic priorities.
When the nation’s governors gathered at the White House in February, Schweitzer likened the president’s pitch, which emphasized Social Security over Medicaid, to a livestock auction that fails to tempt buyers. The headline in the next day’s Los Angeles Times read: “Montana Governor Isn’t Cowed by Bush.”
The governor’s populist touch also on display last year when he brought hunters and fishermen into his camp by exploiting GOP vulnerabilities on field and stream access. On the same day that President Bush was trouncing Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 20 points in Montana, Schweitzer managed a 4-point win.
Schweitzer counts prescription drug subsidies for seniors, purchasing pools to make health insurance more affordable for small businesses and a college scholarship program among his first-year achievements.
Schweitzer’s biggest disappointment was not getting an ethics overhaul through the state Legislature. He is now threatening to place his lobbying reforms on the November 2006 ballot.
Steve McMahon, an adviser to the Democratic National Committee, thinks presidential campaign history has demonstrated “repeatedly” that there are “a lot of advantages to having served as governor.” But McMahon, who advised former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) 2004 campaign, is quick to add a word of caution: “The disadvantage to any governor from any small state is always the same: Can he put together the money, the organization and the political support to compete with Washington-based candidates who have much of that in place already?”
McMahon thinks the “most plausible Democratic governor scenario” in 2008 is Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), the cellphone magnate.
Another potential problem for Schweitzer would be time on the ground in the states that host the early contests. Warner will be out of office starting in 2006. Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), another Democrat hoping to upend the Clinton train, is already out of office.
But in a party with a history of nominating heretofore obscure governors, nobody is writing Schweitzer off just yet.
“It’s a huge leap to go from being the governor of Montana to a presidential campaign in a couple of years,” Lehane said. “On the other hand, the guy seems to be a huge talent. He could be the Jimmy Carter of 2008.”