“I Do Not Trust Politicians”

An interview with former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the Democrat most likely to challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer

Then-Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 6, 2012, in Charlotte, N.C.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.

DW: Does that explain why you always opposed getting into the war in Iraq?

BS: What did we do in Iraq? We up and attack Iraq, create a vacuum, and allow Iran to broaden their shoulders. Of course, in Afghanistan it made sense for the first six months. That’s where Osama Bin Laden, who, while I lived in Saudi Arabia, was called the Mujahedeen, was. The Americans and Saudis were pouring money his way, giving him arms, because he was fighting the Russians. After the Russians left, we started calling them al-Qaida. He didn’t like us, but he didn’t like the Russians. So we went in to stamp out al-Qaida. Six months after we arrived in Afghanistan, al-Qaida was gone. They’d left. So now, in the longest war in the history of the United States, we’re fighting someone called the Taliban—never attacked us, never tried to attack us. They live in the Stone Age. I’ve been there. Even if they wanted to attack us, they wouldn’t find a way.

DW: There isn’t any danger in letting the Taliban take over the country?

BS: Take over what? This is the biggest joke in the whole world. What you do when you go to war is destroy enough of the other side’s infrastructure, and demonstrate you can destroy even more, that they decide they can’t keep it up or they’ll have nothing left. But to the extent that people in Afghanistan have anything, it’s been built by us. They live in stone houses. They have no infrastructure. What the Russians put there and what we’ve put there are the only things of any value. Oh, apart from the poppies they’re growing.

DW: I suppose the question is whether we should worry about blowback, years later, after leaving the country.

BS: If it all goes to hell in a handbasket, that’s fine. That happened after Alexander the Great left; that happened after the Russians left. Who cares? They live in the Stone Age. If you ask generals whether we should stay in a war a little longer, that’s like asking a barber whether you need a haircut.

DW: You mentioned poppies, which is as good of a segue I can think of to what’s happening in Colorado. Do you think that state’s made the right move in legalizing marijuana? Should the rest of the country go that way?

BS: Well, here’s what I can say. Each society has to make choices about what’s against the law. You have a large percentage of the population that’s already using this. The war on drugs is another war that appears to have been lost. This experiment with prohibition of marijuana doesn’t seem have to been working. Colorado might have it more right than the rest of us.

DW: One reason I ask is that when you ran in 2004, when you won the governor’s race, there were gay marriage and marijuana issues on the ballot, and Republicans thought they’d set “family values” traps for you.

BS: Oh, yeah, name these Republicans. The ones cheating on their third wives while they’re talking about traditional family values? Those ones?

DW: Do you think the Affordable Care Act can be made to work?

BS: I will give you not just how this thing should have been written, but what it will get to be, because what we have right now will not work. No. 1: You pass national health insurance laws that say you can’t discriminate against women, charge them higher premiums than men of the same age, you can’t discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions, you can’t have annual caps. Then you allow insurance companies to compete wherever they want, in any state. Boom. The second thing is, you say to every citizen in the United States, now you have the option to buy into Medicare.

We just need to act like capitalists, not socialists. We need to negotiate to buy medicine. Now, what’s interesting is that the detractors hear that and say—this is like socialized medicine. No! Are you kidding me? France, the United Kingdom: They negotiate like capitalists to buy their medicine. The United States? We say to the pharmaceutical companies, how much would you like this for? We continue to pay them three times what they sell the same medicines for all over the world. Right after the bill was passed, big pharma was running ads for all the Democrats who voted for this thing. Even in Montana. What’d they get out of it? They now have a lot more money.

DW: Are you any happier with what the administration’s focusing on this year? One example: The new push to raise the minimum wage.

BS: It’s a good idea, and we raised the minimum wage in Montana. You just can’t tell when a politician says something whether he’s doing it for you or whether he’s using it as a wedge issue to get somewhere else. If you’re talking about inequality, you really need to start by talking about quality education. If we don’t have full-day kindergarten like we do in Montana, then we have a huge proportion of our population that can never catch up. If in fact you’re from the lower middle class, you’ll be so in hock that you’ll be 20 years out of college before you pay those loans.

DW: Between the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, there’s actually been some work done on student loan reform. I mean, they’re not where they want to be, but it’s one of the crusades that progressives in Washington seem more optimistic about.

BS: It’s only been five years of this administration, so maybe by the eighth year they’ll get something done. Congratulations. Thanks for playing.

DW: Did you read anything into the Clintons showing up for Bill de Blasio’s inauguration in New York?

BS: Oh, they’ve got a home there, and she was a senator from New York. De Blasio helped her and her campaign. Yeah, I’ve read articles about how Hillary’s sending a message to the left, how she’s saying, “I’m not the Goldman Sachs candidate.” Well, how about this? How about they’re being nice to a friend?

DW: Is she trying to prove she’s not a corporatist, as you’ve called her?

BS: No, no, I called the president a corporatist. He seems to be OK transferring taxpayer dollars into pharmaceutical companies’ pockets. He’s certainly OK transferring them into the military-industrial complex’s pockets. He’s not unlike Woodrow Wilson, who was the last really big Democratic corporatist.

DW: Where do you think he actually ranks in the last 50–100 years of Democratic presidents?

BS: In part what a president is able to do is elevate, through rhetoric, issues that need to be elevated. I’d give him an A in that area. His ability to communicate, to deliver the message about the values that set us aside as Americans, is very good. I just don’t think his administration has been very good at doing things, about organizing things. It’s not just about the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. As governor I had four years to work with the Bush administration and four years to work with the Obama administration, and they’re just not good at getting things done.

DW: And how did Bill Clinton rank? Do you have any worries about the economic team than ran the place at the end of the ’90s, for example—about them coming back?

BS: Clinton had a very good run. It was eight years of peace and prosperity. But do you recall what the music was, blaring, after they were elected?

DW: It was “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”

BS: Right. Fleetwood Mac, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” So what do we play next time? The Beatles, “Yesterday”? In England, a baby’s born and they know he’ll grow up to be king someday. We’re not England. We’re America.