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This Democrat thinks he can win in 2016 as the anti-Obama

Brian Schweitzer, a former governor of Montana, supports single payer health care--but not a ban on assault weapons. Is he what Dems will want in 2016?
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer leaves the White House in Washington on Feb. 27, 2012.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer leaves the White House in Washington on Feb. 27, 2012.

Brian Schweitzer, the former two-term Democratic governor of Montana, is rarely speechless. Once he gets going on a topic, he’s almost impossible to stop. As he builds up steam, he’ll slap his knee to emphasize his points. He’ll slap your knee to emphasize his points. Good luck getting a word in edgewise for that follow-up question.

But at the moment, Schweitzer is rubbing his chin, looking up at the ceiling, searching – unsuccessfully -- for just the right words. The question was simple enough: Is there a single thing President Obama has done that you consider a positive achievement?

Finally, he spoke.

"My mother, God rest her soul, told me ‘Brian, if you can't think of something nice to say about something change the subject,’” he said.

But he couldn’t help himself, slamming Obama’s record on civil liberties (the NSA revelations were “un-effing-believable”), his competency (“They just haven’t been very good at running things”), and above all, Obamacare (“It will collapse on its own weight”).

Eventually, he paused to acknowledge Obama’s historic role as the first black president. But by that standard, Obama’s usefulness ended the day he took the oath of office.

Schweitzer’s scorn for Obama has led him to hatch a surprising plan. After turning down a run for Senate this year and settling into a new job as a mining executive, the ex-governor surprised observers by announcing his interest in a possible run for president in 2016. He’s since visited Iowa, the kickoff caucus state, to rail against Obama’s “corporatist” health care law and to criticize Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic frontrunner in 2016, for voting to authorize the Iraq war when she was a New York senator.

A Schweitzer presidential candidacy would be a long shot by any measure. He has no national profile and a heterodox political persona that’s served him well in rural, libertarian, and energy rich Montana but doesn’t necessarily sync with the average Democratic primary voter. Clinton, while still undeclared, is such an overwhelming favorite that donors-in-waiting are already competing for territory.

But what Schweitzer does have is a message that’s unique in the likely Democratic field. The former governor is gambling that Democrats won’t just want an alternative to Clinton in 2016--they’ll want a complete and total rejection of the Obama presidency.

Prairie populist

The left-leaning issues Schweitzer is most passionate about– single-payer health care, civil liberties, pulling troops out of Afghanistan – are areas where Obama has run into trouble with progressive activists. But he skews right on issues like expanding domestic oil and coal production and protecting gun rights, where Obama has held relatively strong with his base.

A third-generation rancher rarely seen without a bolo tie, Schweitzer gained a devoted following in Montana espousing “prairie populism”--an approach that included vetoing Republican bills with a hot branding iron and airing campaign ads where he blew away federal ID cards with a shotgun. He holds an advanced degree in soil science, which he put to use in Libya and Saudi Arabia working on agricultural projects before he got into politics. He practices his Arabic by chatting up New York cabbies.

Schweitzer’s background, besides giving him a plausible presidential résumé, has produced a trademark rhetorical style that’s equal parts homespun and worldly. Former Montana GOP chairman Erik Iverson described it to msnbc as “part policy wonk, part P.T. Barnum.” The governor will recite a blizzard of facts, dates, and quotes about the Middle East, for example, but always stop to throw in a sound bite Alan Jackson could understand.  

“People say to me: ‘Brian, you lived in the Middle East, you understand the Middle East,’” he told msnbc. “It’s confusing to most people, you know? The uniforms that they wear, some have got towels some don't, some hang down, some are white, some are Shia, Sunni, Wahhabi, what are all these things, how are the Kuwaitis related to the Saudis, blah blah blah.”

He added, “Look, let me get this clear before you say that you understand: Good guys and bad guys in the Middle East? There are no good guys. It’s bad guys and allies.”

There was a time that this kind of talk made Schweitzer a hot presidential prospect. After George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, progressives immersed themselves in Thomas Frank’s "What's the Matter with Kansas?," a book that theorized Republicans used their blue-collar "authenticity” to trick working-class Americans into voting against their own economic interests. On sites like Daily Kos and MyDD, some activists saw Schweitzer as a logical antidote. 

“He counters the cultural language of the right, which is not just policy – it’s, ‘Those New York or Cambridge liberals and academics are trying to change our lives!’” David Sirota, a progressive author and activist who worked on Schweitzer’s campaigns, told msnbc.

Then a funny thing happened: Democrats started winning elections. They kept it up even after they handed the 2008 presidential nomination to a black Harvard law grad from Chicago. Today, the top concern for the party is maintaining its young, multicultural base.

For that reason, Schweitzer’s role as red state ambassador may be less in demand. But his rowdy anti-corporate economic message increasingly resonates across both parties.

"I think what Bill de Blasio is talking about is absolutely correct,” Schweitzer said of the new mayor of New York City, who was elected in a landslide by focusing on economic inequality. “The gap between haves and the have-nots is growing."

'I'm not going to apologize'

Schweitzer met Obama once. It didn’t go well.

In August 2009, the president traveled to Montana to deliver a speech touting health care reform. His efforts to transform the health care system were then under siege from the tea party movement, which warned of a European-style “government takeover” of health care and spread myths of federal “death panels” to execute the infirm. So Schweitzer raised a few eyebrows when he introduced Obama by declaring his unabashed love for Canada’s government-run health care program.

"Did you know that, just 300 miles north of here, did you know they offered universal health care 62 years ago?" he said. He praised Tommy Douglas, father of the country’s health program, who, he noted, was named in a TV poll the greatest Canadian in history – nine spots ahead of Wayne Gretzky.

Minutes later, the president used his own speech to declare, "I'm not in favor of a Canadian system, I'm not in favor of a British system, I'm not in favor of a French system. What we've said is, let's find a uniquely American system."

This wasn’t the only source of tension between the two men.

Schweitzer was concerned the emerging legislation would rely too heavily on expanding Medicaid, which he complained could prove too costly for states and give conservative governors room to undermine coverage. He wanted a strong public option, which Obama favored but the Senate would soon jettison to appease wavering Democrats. Schweitzer had campaigned on importing cheaper drugs from Canada (he personally bused seniors across the border to buy medicine) and wanted the government to negotiate lower prices, two policies that the White House rejected to secure alternative savings and pharmaceutical industry support.

After the speeches were over, Obama sat Schweitzer down for a private talk. According to Schweitzer, the president said his voice wasn’t helping the health care debate and asked him to step away. The White House, through a spokeswoman, disputed his account.

Schweitzer said he agreed to to tone down his attacks after their meeting. But he went on to engineer a series of confrontations with the Obama administration that highlighted his critique of the law.

His request for permission to sell drugs at Medicaid prices in Montana was rejected. He tried to get a waiver to turn Medicaid into a single payer system, modeled on Saskatchewan's, for all Montanans. That idea was rejected, too. But he did build a small network of free clinics for state employees that pay doctors by the hour instead of by the procedure to lower expenses. So far, they’ve gone over pretty well.

"I'm a little bit like Michael Moore,” Schweitzer told msnbc. “I suppose I'm a Democrat and I ought to roll over like a fat dog and get scratched by the pharmaceutical and insurance companies because, gee, we have to apologize for so-called Obamacare. I’m not going to apologize a damn bit.”

While it may be decades before Democrats have the power to take a more progressive bite at the health care apple, what comes next after Obamacare will still be a major question for Democrats in 2016 and beyond. Schweitzer could be well positioned to make the case for the uncompromising left.

Long shot

Still, even some of Schweitzer’s former supporters are unsure how seriously to take his hints at a presidential bid.

“If Hillary runs, then there's little he could do except merit ‘side-story’ status,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas said in an e-mail. “But even if Hillary doesn't run, I think he's damaged himself with the netroots wing of the party by refusing to run for Senate this year.”

His views could leave openings for Democrats to attack from the left. On guns, Schweitzer now supports closing loopholes on background checks. But he still opposes an assault weapons ban. While Howard Dean managed to capture the progressive imagination with a matching “A” rating from the NRA, the issue is more emotionally raw in the post-Newtown era, and Schweitzer himself has expressed concern that it might disqualify him from national politics. On the environment, while he’s far from a climate change denier (he favors a carbon tax to cut emissions), his support for the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to alienate environmentalists. 

It could be that Schweitzer is really aiming his sights for the vice presidency. He pulls his punches ever so slightly when talking about Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state. When asked about Benghazi, he leaps to her defense.

“The Republicans like to blame her for four people killed in the embassy and that's tragic,” he told msnbc. “But did the Republicans forget already that during the time I was in Saudi Arabia there was a big explosion in a hotel in Beirut, Lebanon, and 160 American Marines were killed? 160’s a lot more than four, right?”

In fact, 220 Marines and 241 American personnel total were killed in the 1983 bombing. Which brings up another issue for Schweitzer: he doesn’t have much of a filter. In a presidential campaign, even the slightest gaffe can explode into a firestorm.

Ultimately, Schweitzer’s biggest impact on the 2016 presidential contest could be pressuring the centrist, cautious Clinton to stay in the left lane.

“When you choose your next national leader, ask them how they're going to be different than Bush,” Schweitzer told msnbc. “Ask them how they're going to be different than Obama.”