The last time he appeared on a ballot, then-Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer filmed a TV ad that consisted entirely of him shooting clay pigeons. “When Washington, D.C., wanted to track Americans with federal ID cards,” rumbled a narrator, “our governor said no. He stopped out-of-state interests from closing Montana’s rivers and streams to public access. Oh, and he’s endorsed by the NRA.”
Schweitzer turned to the camera. “It helps to tape the federal ID card onto the clay pigeon,” he said with a chuckle. “Gives me motivation.”
Democrats inside and outside of Montana loved Schweitzer. The liberal “netroots” held him up as a model for other candidates, a bolo-tied Neo who’d cracked the culture-war code. Schweitzer gave a rolling, mocking speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that won more praise than the official keynote address. He won re-election with a vote margin that he can recite from memory.
“Sixty-five-point-six percent,” says Schweitzer, talking on the phone this weekend before heading to Washington to appear on ABC’s This Week. “Sen. Jon Tester won re-election [in 2012] and didn’t get 50 percent of the vote. I didn’t have that problem. … If I wanted to be in the Senate, there was a pretty clear path to get there.”
But Schweitzer isn’t running for Senate. Democrats had wanted the popular former governor to replace retiring Sen. Max Baucus. Schweitzer’s lucky career in politics began when he surged from obscurity to nearly win a Senate seat in Montana, way back in 2000. Since then, sure, he’d never mentioned Washington without a zinger about how dreadful it would be to live there, but Democrats were shocked when he turned down an easy-looking race to replace his longtime intraparty rival, Baucus.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was a little naïve in 2000,” says Schweitzer. “The system’s changed since then. It’s gotten a lot worse. I found that being a member of Congress means your only job is to get re-elected. History will judge you by how many times you get re-elected, and you get re-elected by raising money. You raise it from insurance, from pharmaceutical, from big energy, and from the military-industrial complex.”
Naturally, Schweitzer’s started talking about a campaign that would be tenfold as expensive as a Senate race. He’s been visiting Iowa and promising to visit all 99 counties. (It’s on his “bucket list.”) The Venn diagram of people who visit all 99 Iowa counties and people who run for president is basically a solid circle. Schweitzer’s only just been added to presidential polls, where he comes in between zero and 2 percent. He talks about these numbers the way a presidential candidate always does.
“The Republicans tend to choose the candidate who came in second place in the last election, and Democrats tend to move on,” he says. “Ask President Ed Muskie how it worked out to be the front-runner. Ask President Howard Dean how it worked out.”
Here’s an edited version of the rest of our conversation.
David Weigel: You start off every morning at 4 a.m. or so, reading national news, so I assume you read the New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Edward Snowden. Do you agree with the Times? Would you grant clemency?
Brian Schweitzer: If Edward Snowden is a criminal, then so are a lot of people that are working within the CIA and the NSA who have been spying illegally on American citizens. They ought to grant Snowden clemency. Now, let me say this: Shame on us if we had a person working for a private contractor, without a high school diploma, who was in possession of our most delicate secrets. We look like Keystone Kops! But I don’t have any problem with the NSA and their mission of collecting information on foreign leaders. They spy on us; we spy on them. I’ve got a real big problem with American neighbors spying on American neighbors.
DW: Given how much you campaigned against REAL ID cards, I feel like we know where you stand on the ethics of surveillance and information collection. But what is it about the domestic spying programs that worries you, specifically?
BS: It’s enough that they have illegally, knowingly violated federal law, violated constitutional rights, and are effectively spying on law-abiding American citizens. Look, I do not trust politicians. The only thing a politician cares about is getting re-elected. If they can collect information on their political opponents and use it in various ways to embarrass them, they’ll do it. If you don’t believe they’d do that if they got the chance, then you, my friend, are naïve.
DW: Last month, when you went to Iowa and talked to Democrats, you criticized the Democrats who voted for the Iraq War. There’s one Democrat in particular who really fits that profile right now [Hillary Clinton], but putting that aside: Are you any more satisfied with the policies of the last six months or so? The Iran deal? The deal that prevented airstrikes on Syria?
BS: The Iranian deal makes sense. We linked up with the Saudis before and after World War II. Look, unlike virtually every member of Congress, I have a pretty good firsthand knowledge of the Middle East. The day after I got out of graduate school, after I defended my thesis, I went straight to Libya. I was there for a year; I was in Saudi Arabia for seven. I learned to speak Arabic. I can explain to you, in a way that almost no one else in the country can, the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. I can explain to you who and what the Wahhabis are in Saudi Arabia. I can talk to you about why we, the United States, initially got involved with the Saudi royal family, what we got out of the deal. I can explain to you why we knew Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We knew, because we supplied chemical weapons to him so he could poison the Iranians. The Iranians are Persian, not Arab; they haven’t got along for several thousand years.
So we’ve had a bad history with Iran because of what we did in 1953, replacing an elected official with a dictator. If we can build a relationship that’s a little more even-handed, if we can get them to back away from their nuclear ambition—let’s face it, their neighbors don’t even like that—if we were to step up and said we’re no longer just going to take the Saudis’ position all the time, you don’t have to worry about us attacking you from Afghanistan or Iraq, if you agree to back away from your nuclear ambitions, we’ll be neutral.