In his younger and more vulnerable days, Buddy Roemer got some advice from Ronald Reagan that he's been turning over in his mind ever since. Roemer was a congressman from Louisiana, a comer who'd been giving Reagan the votes he needed on big tax and spending bills. The president took the congressman aside.
Reagan wanted to know if Roemer was thinking about being president someday. If so, he told Roemer,"You've gotta do two things. First, you've got to be governor. That's the best training. Second, you've got to switch parties, Buddy!'"
Roemer did both. Twenty-four years ago, he got himself elected governor of Louisiana. Twenty years ago, he transferred his loyalties to the Republican Party—then lost re-election. Sixteen years ago, Roemer ran for governor again. After he lost a second time, he gave up on politics to join Business First Bank.
Now he's back, and hardly anyone notices. Roemer jumped into the 2012 presidential race in July. He got a nice little interview on Greta Van Susteren's show, and some time on MNSBC, and a slot on The Colbert Report after Herman Cain canceled. And what about Herman Cain? The food-franchise turnaround artist, who has never been elected to anything, appears in polls; he gets invited to Republican debates. Neither of those things can be reliably said about Roemer.
"Maybe it's my 20-year absence from politics, OK?" he says. "Let's be fair about it. I've been working on building my company. I haven't missed politics at all."
His campaign manager, Carlos Sierra, has said that Roemer's being left out of debates because of "bullshit rules." He said this in a letter to supporters. Roemer winces at the quote. "I wish he hadn't done that," he says. "I wouldn't use that word. I would call them 'B.S.' rules."
Roemer, who used to be one of the New South's Politicians to Watch, is now a 67-year-old fringe candidate. We can borrow the term Matt Labash once used to describe an also-ran in the 2007 race: Roemer is the sane fringe candidate. He hasn't hired known-quantity campaign strategists (one of the reasons why Jon Huntsman has been gifted with hours of free media and at least one magazine cover, despite no tangible support from actual voters), and he is purposefully refusing to raise much money, socking away $60,535 in his last report.
I talked to Roemer over the phone on Tuesday, two days before he's set to give an economics speech—his second—at the National Press Club, which is often where candidates struggling for attention end up.
Slate: So, what's your theory? Why aren't you getting taken more seriously? When you do appear in the media, the hook is usually "Why isn't he getting more media?" That's actually why I'm talking to you, come to think of it.
Roemer: It's very sporadic. It's a great deal of focus, and then nothing for a while. And it depends on the quality of the reporter, I find. Some of them are just concerned about the money you raise and where you stand in the polls. That's the wrong way to look at it. When I ran for governor, I started in last place—I mean, I was at 3 percent, 4 percent, I was just discounted day after day.
Slate: Like now.
Roemer: Well, some reporters got what I was doing. They got that I was running against corruption. They got the "Roemer Revolution." They got that. I'm hoping we'll have the same two-step here. If I can get on the debate stage and point at the other candidates, and ask them, "Where are you getting your money?" then that'll be big. "Who runs your Super PAC? How will you get done what you want to get done, because you're owned by your donors?" And then, once the prairie is ablaze, there's no puttin' it out. That can happen 100 days before an election, 30 days before an election.
Slate: About the donations, though—you're not taking any donations larger than $100.
Slate: When you were governor, you capped donations for everyone at $5,000. So why not have a higher cap for your own campaign than $100?
Roemer: I could have done that! It's a good question. The $100 limit is arbitrary. My limit, the one I proposed as governor, was in a state where there was no limit! I mean, $5,000 was a hell of a limit for people who were getting $250,000 from big oil companies. Then, as I do now, I wanted to call attention to the corruption, set myself aside from the good old boys. I like $100 because it's reachable by every person. There's not a person who will read your article who can't do $100. Now, on the other hand, I believe the six or seven major candidates, plus the president, will all have Super PACs, where there are no limits. It's supposedly OK, to them, when a former campaign manager can go off and run a Super PAC, and say, well, this is independent from the campaign. This is corruption! This is phony! This is a lie!
Slate: What those candidates say, though, and what the Supreme Court says, is that money is speech. Let's look at Mitt Romney. One of his Super PAC's big donors was anonymous, and then the media hounded the guy out, and Romney said that it was "no harm, no foul" to find out where that money was coming from. If we find out who the big donors are, why shouldn't big donors be allowed to contribute what they want?
Roemer: That's a big if! You just dug yourself a nice, big hole for yourself with what you said there. He was forced to do it! That donor was hidden. He set up a corporation then he shut it down, just to move the money. It's a trick, it's gamed. Look, I'm a grown man, and I've been in politics most of my life. I know how people hide this money, behind PACs with fancy names that mean nothing. I'd say that sunlight cures and heals. There's no criminal charge for hiding the identity of a donor. There should be.
Slate: When you were in the House you backed a few different efforts to cut spending along the recommendations that committees had come up with. Are you optimistic about the "supercommittee"?
Roemer: No. I wanted the leadership to keep the committee clean—keep 'em clean, don't let them raise money. I wanted them to request that the members not take money from lobbyists for the rest of their term, not take PAC money. This special committee could have been example of how to keep things right and straight. And before I even sent a letter asking for that, what happened, you had one member of the committee send a fundraising message out. I won't mention his name. I won't mention Xavier Becerra's name. I'll be nice about it.
Slate: When you were governor, you stepped up regulation on oil companies. You've also said that we should have started drilling again, more quickly, after the BP spill. Which is it? Where are you on regulation of hydraulic fracking, for example, because at the moment that's not terribly regulated.
Roemer: We shouldn't let the radical environmentalists have the last word. They never complained about fracking until two years ago. They keep shifting their emphasis. No, I think we should have a balance. We should require the industry to have a reservoir of resources for immediate cleanup. We should require regulators to be independent of the producers, and that was not the case with BP, as you well know. Now: I believe we should develop what we have. I believe that we're paying a price for foreign oil—loss of life, loss of currency. But we need to develop it, then tariff that oil and use the revenue to pay down the national debt.
Slate: Also, when you were governor, you vetoed an abortion ban—
Roemer: I vetoed two abortion bans. The second one was even worse. It didn't protect the life of the mother. The Supreme Court found it unconstitutional.
Slate: Two bans. Is that still your position, that there should not be a total ban on abortions?
Roemer: I'm a Methodist. I would call my position the Methodist position. We are pro-life, so we would protect the life of the mother, and protect her in cases of rape and incest.
Slate: So you don't mix religion and politics. What did you make of Rick Perry's day of prayer a few weeks ago, or his statewide declarations of prayer for rain?
Roemer: My problem with Perry is that I haven't heard a substantive speech from him on any issue, and I know he must have a view on those issues. I've been in many meetings where they've done prayers. The difference is the publicity that they tried to generate in Texas. I don't know, maybe I'm old-fashioned, but mixing politics and religion? My attendance at church is more important to me than political speeches, and I don't do both at same time.
Slate: But back to the horse race: You've got money. Why not put enough money into the campaign to run some ads and get the attention you need to get into these debates?
Roemer: My wife and I have put all the money we're going to put into this. The plan is to remain eligible for matching funds.
Slate: But you're sticking with the $100 limit?
Roemer: My best fundraising week was last week. I raised enough money to buy a ticket to one of Obama's fundraisers.