Schweitzer is known for being remarkably personable. But his leadership style is consistently characterized as a marriage of bullying and showmanship. He made his border collie a senior adviser, and would take it around the capitol despite a ban there on all animals that weren’t service dogs. And, as the pièce de résistance of his administration, he made a cattle brand with the word “VETO” on it, had it officially registered with the state, and used it to publicly veto dozens of pieces of legislation passed by the Republican legislature, sending the paper on which the bills were printed up in flames.
It’s not the kind of stunt executed by a person known for his ability to compromise. And Schweitzer wasn’t interested in meeting Republicans anywhere near the middle. He also wasn’t shy about using pushy tactics. He would sometimes call meetings with Republican legislative leaders and, without forewarning, also invite the press. The legislators would show up and get a ten-minute lecture from the governor in front of the group of reporters. Understandably, many lost interest in meeting with the governor.
He has a carefully crafted folksy persona: He once compared D.C. to “a brokedown pickup,” is fond of saying that he isn’t senile enough to be in the Senate, and wears bolo ties instead of neckties. On one Saint Patrick’s Day, he went to bars in Butte and did shots of whiskey. One source described all this as part of “the Brian show.” Insiders hold that behind the brashness and theatricality is a cautious, calculating, strategic politician who likes to be in charge and at the center of attention. His colorful comments sound off-the-cuff, and that’s by design.
And Montanans eat it up. When his term limit was up, he left office with approval from about six in ten of Montana voters.
“I think there’s very little question that this is probably not actually good news for Republicans if Brian Schweitzer decides to run,” says Travis Kavulla, a member of the state’s Public Service Commission and a former National Review associate editor. “He’s probably a much stronger candidate, I think, than Max Baucus.”
The former governor isn’t invulnerable. He’ll draw heat from both ends of the political spectrum — environmentalists deplore his pro-coal stance, and he’s fond of saying about gun control, “You control yours, I’ll control mine.” That said, some argue that he would have supported the Toomey-Manchin background-check amendment. And he vetoed a universal concealed-carry bill that the NRA had lobbied for.
As alluded to earlier, he also doesn’t think the Affordable Care Act goes far enough and has publicly called for single-payer health care. And there’s a late-breaking story about sexual misconduct that happened under his administration. Plus, in 2006 he publicly bragged about rigging the senatorial race that Democrat Jon Tester won, and said one election official was “nervous as a pregnant nun.” He dialed back those remarks, but they still don’t sound so good. And he also took some heat when he said that Mitt Romney’s family “came from a polygamy commune in Mexico.” Also, as noted on the Corner, he once suggested that Montana is full of racists.
So whether Brian Schweitzer will end up as the Democrats’ Todd Akin, or as their Marco Rubio, is up in the air. For now, though, he’s right where he likes to be: in the spotlight.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.