This Former Governor Wants Hillary’s Spot in 2016
Policy + Politics

This Former Governor Wants Hillary’s Spot in 2016

REUTERS/Jason Reed

So who was that Lilliputian desperately clinging to the heel of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s shoe in an illustration on the cover of this week’s Time Magazine?

The magazine’s cover story asks “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” from winning the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 if she chooses to run. The short answer is probably not.

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Long before the former Secretary of State, U.S. senator and First Lady has to make that decision, the list of her potential Democratic rivals has shriveled. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar (MN), three bright lights in the Democratic Party with enthusiastic followings, haven taken themselves out of the race. Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Jerry Brown of California have signaled that a run for president in two years is probably not in the cards for them.

That leaves just a few others, including Vice President Joe Biden, 71, who is keeping the door open to the possibility of one last hurrah, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a popular two-term moderate, and Brian Schweitzer, a former Montana governor.

Schweitzer, 58, a self-styled “prairie populist,” is arguably the most obscure of Clinton’s potential challengers, which makes him relatively easy to dismiss. His apparent strategy is to win converts among the far left of his party and position himself for the remote possibility that Clinton will somehow stumble in 2016 or decide not to run.

Schweitzer’s goal is the longest of long-shots. And yet no one gave former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee any chance of beating Mitt Romney in Iowa’s Republican caucuses before Huckabee rode a wave of evangelical fervor to victory in January 2008. So nothing is really impossible in politics.

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The product of a small town in Montana, Schweitzer pursued a high-octane career that blended his interests in business, agriculture and overseas irrigation projects in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America with a passion for politics. He spent several years working in Libya, and speaks Arabic.

MSNBC says the left-leaning Schweitzer is most passionate about single-payer health care, the National Security Agency’s monitoring of Americans phone and Internet records, and pulling troops out of Afghanistan – all areas where President Obama has run into trouble with progressive activists. But he trends right on issues such as expanding domestic oil and coal production and protecting gun rights. As governor, he signed into law the 2009 Montana Firearms Freedom Act that exempted firearms made and kept Montana from federal firearm regulations.

“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.”

By now it's a cliché that the Democratic nomination is Clinton's for the asking. Next to Obama, Clinton is the most dominant Democratic figure on the political scene today. Polls show that more than two thirds of Democrats are eager to see her run. And she hammers embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other potential Republican nominees in matchups.

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If there is a chink in her armor, it may be her uneasy relationship with the Democrats’ left wing, which has strong reservations about her centrist record, her hawkish foreign policy views and her ties to big business and the financial community dating back to her days as a senator from New York. “Despite this apathy, however, no fresh figure has emerged to pick up the banner on the left,” writes David Von Drehle of Time.

Schweitzer barely registered earlier this month in a Public Policy Polling survey of New Hampshire voters’ sentiments about the 2016 presidential contest. But Schweitzer is undaunted in this early going.

Schweitzer surprised some supporters last year by deciding to pass up a bid to return to the Senate and instead explore an improbable run for the White House. Despite the long odds against him, Schweitzer doesn’t lack for self-confidence and gumption.

Last month, he made his first foray into Iowa, home to the first-in-the nation presidential caucuses, to rail against Obama’s “corporatist” health care law and to berate the administration for trampling on civil liberties.

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At the same time, he used his speech to a group of progressive Democrats in Des Moines to draw a clear line between himself and Hillary Clinton on an issue that had long ago faded for many – the U.S. entry into the war in Iraq after 9/11. Schweitzer repeatedly blasted Senate Democrats, including Clinton, who voted in 2002 to send troops into Iraq.

“When George Bush got a bunch of Dems to vote for that war, I was just shaking my head in Montana,” Schweitzer said. “I’m asking you to pick the leaders who aren’t going to make those mistakes.”

Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, which sponsored the speech, said that Schweitzer was a big hit because of his folksy manner and personal story. “But I know I was surprised to hear him” go after Clinton’s Senate vote on Iraq, Sinovic said.

“I’m not sure how that would turn into an issue again,” Sinovic told The Fiscal Times earlier this week. “I thought he would focus more on his track record as governor.”

While Schweitzer clearly connected with the audience – and helped raise nearly $1,000 for the organization by auctioning off his bollo tie and western belt buckle – he did little to chip away at Democrats’ overwhelming support for Clinton.

“I would say that if she decided to run, Hillary Clinton would obviously be the clear front runner and for obvious reasons there would be huge excitement for her candidacy,” Sinovic said.

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This story was updated at 2:20 p.m.