Did former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer's presidential ambitions just go down the tubes? I've been criticizing the press' focus on "gaffes" for a long time, but there are some things that, once you say them, are hard to put behind you. Schweitzer, who has always been known for being unfiltered, invited National Journal reporter Marin Cogan up to his house in Montana, and the result was rather interesting:
This was the week that Sen. Dianne Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of spying on congressional staffers investigating the agency's treatment of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration. Schweitzer is incredulous that Feinstein—considered by her critics to be too close to the intelligence community—was now criticizing the agency. "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!" he says. Then, he adds, quickly, "I mean, maybe that's the wrong metaphor—but she was all in!"
(It wasn't the only time Schweitzer was unable to hold his tongue. Last week, I called him on the night Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in his GOP primary. "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," he offered when I mentioned the stunning news. When I asked him what he meant, he added, "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. Again, I couldn't care less. I'm accepting.")
What I love about that is that the little voice telling Schweitzer to shut his mouth is not just in his head, but actually coming out of that very mouth. "Don't hold this against me, but I'm going to blurt it out." You know at that moment that Cogan was saying to herself, "Oh, this is going to be good." And so it was.
No one who has followed Schweitzer will be too surprised. He has built his political brand largely on that most precious of political commodities, "authenticity." If you took the political press' treatment of the authenticity question literally, you'd conclude that politicians who sound boring and rehearsed when they talk make worse leaders than politicians who are loose and unpredictable. There isn't any evidence to support this presumption, but that doesn't matter.
But there's a fine line between being "authentic" and just being a jerk, and even if you don't think Schweitzer crossed it here, chances are he will eventually. The real trick, you see, is to give people just enough authenticity, but not too much. To be careful, yet sound spontaneous. To avoid the talking points, but stick to the well-worn themes. If you're really good at it, you can sound like a down-home reg'lar fella while offending very few people. But Schweitzer isn't. And in the constant scrutiny that would come with a presidential campaign, the guy would be a regular gaffe machine.
That isn't to say that if he were just a little more restrained he'd have a good shot at getting the Democratic nomination for president. He's basically a conservative Democrat with a couple of liberal positions (like support for single-payer health insurance) thrown in. As Cogan says, liberals "might love his criticisms of Obama's foreign policy. But will they still love him when they realize he had an endorsement from the NRA? Or supported the Keystone pipeline? Will they accept him as a critic of Wall Street knowing he paired with a hedge fund to take over a mining company?" Even if there isn't one particular issue that would make Schweitzer unable to win over Democratic voters (they tend to be less doctrinaire and more forgiving when it comes to the occasional ideological impurity than Republican voters are), I seriously doubt that he'd be able to build and sustain enough support to seriously challenge Hillary Clinton. But who knows—I could be wrong.