Miracle in Montana
Imagine the scene: The candidate strides into the capital rotunda, followed by dark-suited men carrying briefcases. The gathered reporters open their notebooks. Camera flashes go off. On cue, the cases are opened, and piles upon piles of cash are dumped all over the floor of the place where the people's business is done. The shocked silence is finally broken by that candidate's righteous, booming voice, decrying the corruption that lobbyists and their briefcases full of money bring.
No, you don't have to daydream it, or experience it in an old Frank Capra movie; it really happened, in the Montana capital in Helena back in 2004. That politician was Brian Schweitzer, a mint farmer from Whitefish who was well on his way to winning the governor's job.
Oh yeah, and Schweitzer's a Democrat.
From out-of-control spending to indictments to botched wars to cover-ups, it's pretty clear that Republicans are trying their best to hand over the reins of government to the Democrats. But will the Dems grab them? Since being pushed aside in the 1994 Republican Revolution and then landing on the wrong side of the Florida non-recount, Democrats have been lost in the wilderness.
But in Montana, of all places, Democrats have found themselves.
Following up Schweitzer's victory, John Tester, a Democrat, is leading longtime incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, a pal of Jack Abramoff's. How have Schweitzer and Tester done it? It doesn't take a fancy bound report or Power Point presentation to explain it. No, it's way simpler than that: They rediscovered their working-class roots.
And sticking up for the little guy is spreading through the Mountain West states like a wildfire in August. In fact, while the party bigwigs spin their wheels back East, Democrats are mounting a serious comeback in former Republican strongholds like Montana and Colorado. Prior to 2002, all eight Mountain West states â€” Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming â€” had Republican governors. If Colorado goes Democrat this fall (and Democrat Bill Ritter has a 17-point lead), five of those states will be Democrat come January. If Jerry Brady wins in Idaho (and he took 42 percent of the vote in 2002), make it six.
Why is this happening? The Republicans' implosion is at least half the story, as six years of blindly following George W. Bush has left the party in the deep end of the cavern with no way out. The latest example of their flailing is eliminating habeas corpus rules as an election year stunt. That's right, throwing out 400-plus years of English and American legal traditions as a campaign strategy. Of course they will be punished for this, especially in the Mountain West, where the Patriot Act is considered profanity and people have been suspicious of a too-powerful federal government for generations.
But the other part is that some Dems are giving voice to the resulting outrage, and offering a hopeful way out. And they did it by dusting off populist politics â€” something the Republicans used (disingenuously, it has turned out) back in '94. (Eastern Washington congressional candidate Peter Goldmark seems to have read the Schweitzer playbook carefully.)
In Montana, there's a strong, labor-based populist tradition, as the state's fates have been controlled from Wall Street dating back to Butte's heyday as a mining mecca. More recently, Wall Street sold off Montana Power during the go-go Enron era. For state politicians whose fingerprints were found on these transgressions, there has been hell to pay. Conrad Burns is just the next in line to get his medicine.
David Sirota is a long-time Democratic campaign strategist, but he's a bit of a renegade, as he has been a persistent critic of the national party's stumbling ways and cozy corporate ties. So to walk his talk, he went to work for candidate Schweitzer; he still lives in Helena.
"You could make the case,"? he says from the road between Helena and Missoula, "that Montana hasn't really changed as much as the parties have changed. If the Dems nationally are looking to break out at the presidential level, they should take some cues from this region â€” this is the most fertile ground for Dems to win, to turn red states blue. But that's only if they adopt a distinctly different kind of politics.
"The party," Sirota says, "is in a battle for its own soul."
Indeed, it may be a battle for the soul of a nation.
Of course the old reliable counter to populist politics is that it's just class warfare. Often that's been enough to get politicians to back off â€” along with the specter of losing campaign contributions. But it's long past time to recognize that's exactly what it is: class warfare. Only the working, middle class didn't start the fight.
For 12 years, guns, gays and God have been used to keep enough voters distracted as their pockets have been picked. But now the times are changing; people are starting to see they're being played for fools.
Exhibit A is Bill Sali, who is running for Congress in Idaho's 1st District. Winning 25 percent of the primary vote, he emerged from a field of six Republicans for what appeared to be the chance to waltz into the job. At least that's how it appeared back in Washington, D.C., where the notorious Club for Growth saw something it liked in Sali; the group and its individual members contributed nearly $500,000 to Sali's primary race. A recent internal poll, however, has pegged Sali at 34 percent (his opponent, Democrat Boise businessman Larry Grant, is at 28 percent, with lots of undecideds); Republicans are never at 34 percent in Idaho. Something is not adding up.
Of course it doesn't help that the Club for Growth backed a guy who was called "an absolute idiot"? by the Republican Speaker of the Idaho statehouse. Or could it be that Idahoans are finally seeing what's right in front of their faces? They are not picking their next Congressman. The Club for Growth has decided to do it for them. That's the very definition of being played.
Jerry Brady even makes sly reference to it (along with Bush's public land sell-off plan) in his brilliant slogan: "Idaho is not for sale."
Those are the kinds of sentiments that used to mean something in the Mountain West.
There is a humble strength and simple wisdom in the American West, and the country needs both. Now.