We always complain that our candidates have become too plastic and poll-driven; we profess to want “authentic” straight shooters who spontaneously Say What They Mean And Mean What They Say.
But would voters — in this case, Democratic voters — really support someone like Brian Schweitzer?
Perhaps you know about Schweitzer. A former Montana governor and devotee of bolo ties, he’s currently jonesing to challenge Hillary Clinton for the ’16 nomination … from the left. Although actually, in some ways, he seems poised to challenge Hillary … from the right. The thing is, Schweitzer is impossible to label. That surely makes him authentic (most Americans don’t slot themselves ideologically), but it makes him problematical for Democratic primary voters who eschew such nuance.
Can you imagine this guy passing a liberal litmus test? On the one hand, he’s pro-abortion rights; as governor, he routinely vetoed GOP curb-abortion bills. On the other hand, he’s a rugged frontiersman who boasts “I have a lot of guns” and thinks that most gun control ideas are sissified.
He heatedly opposed the Iraq war and assails Hillary for authorizing it – but he pals around with Mitt Romney, whom he calls “a fun guy” (as opposed to President Obama, whom he calls “stiff as a board”). He wishes that the health reform law was more liberal (he wanted a more direct government role), but, elsewhere on the agenda front, he supports the Keystone pipeline and assails its environmental foes as “jackasses.”
But even more problematical is his yen for politically incorrect conversation. That’s where he’d truly test our purported yen for authenticity.
Schweitzer is a spontaneous straight shooter, but he runs his mouth so colorfully that his candor might make us pine for plasticity. He has been frenetically working the press — MSNBC (a regular contributor), Playboy, the nonpartisan National Journal, The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine (all told, he needs lots of “free media” because he can’t match Hillary’s fundraising) — but he has been burying himself deeper at each turn. It’s tough to launch a candidacy when people keep saying, “Schweitzer said what?”
Earlier this month, after Eric Cantor got blown out in his Republican primary contest, Schweitzer offered a vividly unique critique. Cantor is from Virginia, and the problem with southern men is … well … oh heck, let Schweitzer tell it:
“Don’t hold this against me, but I’m going to blurt it out. How do I say this. Men in the South, they are a little effeminate. They just have effeminate mannerisms. If you were just a regular person, you turned on the TV, and you saw Eric Cantor talking, I would say — and I’m fine with gay people, that’s all right — but my gaydar is 60-70 percent. But he’s not, I think, so I don’t know.”
Well. Try and unpack that one.
This may be the first time any White House aspirant has ever talked about gaydar, but still. Democratic presidential candidates already have enough problems winning southern states, and I doubt that straight southern men would warm to somebody who highlighted their so-called “effeminate mannerisms.” That’s not the kind of authenticity they would abide. I doubt they’d like Schweitzer even if he showed up on the stump with his entire gun collection.
But Schweitzer has a little something for everyone. In another recent interview, he critiqued the future of the Democratic party: “(It) has to be that same party that not only respects gay and lesbian rights and transgender rights in San Francisco, but respects that blue collar guy who takes a shower at the end of the day and not in the morning.”
I think we get what he was trying to say, that Democrats need to do better with working-class voters. But in today’s political culture, we parse every word — and one can easily envision gays (a key urban Democratic constituency) being offended by Schweitzer’s words. What, gays don’t work in blue-collar jobs? They never shower at the end of the day because they supposedly never get their hands dirty?
And what’s up with Schweitzer’s reference to “San Francisco,” as if that’s the only place where gay equality is at issue? Republicans used to invoke “San Francisco” as a pejorative synonym for decadence — and that was 30 years ago.
As for women voters (who’ve basically elected the last two Democratic presidents), I wonder whether they’d applaud Schweitzer for being an authentic guy’s guy — as evidenced by the way he has knocked Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She’s considered a friend of the intelligence community, yet recently she angrily accused the CIA of spying on Congress. Schweitzer thought she was being hypocritical, but here’s how he chose to criticize her:
“She was the woman who was standing under the streetlight with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees – and now she says, ‘I’m a nun,’ when it comes to this spying.”
The image of a woman standing half-naked under a streetlight has certain … implications. I wonder whether Schweitzer has ever described a male politician as standing under a streetlight with his pants down.
OK, he did hasten to say, “maybe that’s the wrong metaphor,” and later he posted on Facebook that his various remarks about women and gays and southern men have been “stupid and insensitive.” He apologized for what he called his “carelessness and disregard.” But if we really value authenticity, why should he have to apologize? Simple answer: Because we don’t value authenticity as much as we profess to. These days, anyone who speaks his mind too freely must be prepared to apologize.
Schweitzer can plead, “Don’t hold it against me” as much as he wants, but rest assured that if he runs for president, whatever he blurts would be deemed fair game. And the game is more unforgiving than ever. As we say in the news business, Schweitzer would be “great copy” — until his early exit.
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