What Brian Schweitzer is thinking

December 19, 2013

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer went to Iowa Wednesday night. And, as he has a knack for doing, he made news.

"I didn’t vote for that war, and I didn’t think it was a good idea," Schweitzer said of Iraq. "George Bush got a bunch of Democrats to go to that war, I was just shaking my head in Montana."


Senator Mark Begich, left, and Governor Brian Schweitzer at Washington Post Live's Energy & the Election breakfast forum at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

There's, of course, only one Democrat who voted for "that war" who is thinking about running for president in 2016: Hillary Clinton. Schweitzer and everyone else in the audience -- and the broader political world -- knew who he meant. In case you missed that, he added this gem: "Gosh, we had Bush, Bush, Bush and Clinton, Clinton and now we’re talking about a Bush or a Clinton again and I think in America we’re always looking for leadership that takes us to the future and we’re not often looking in the rear view mirror for our leadership."

There's a very clear reason that Schweitzer targeted Clinton. He knows that no matter how big a frontrunner Clinton is in the 2016 race, there will always be a desire on the liberal left to get behind a candidate who isn't part of the D.C. political establishment. If that candidate isn't Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- and she has given every indication it won't be -- then, Schweitzer figures, why shouldn't it be him? ("Why not me" is a surprisingly common reason for running for offices.)

After all, he gave a very well-received speech -- sporting a bolo tie! -- at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, left office after two terms as governor of Montana with sky-high approval ratings and has become a favorite son among the liberal left. He's also remarkably charismatic -- we first came across Schweitzer when he ran against then Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000 -- with a sort of everyman appeal that Gov. Chris Christie has turned into political gold in New Jersey.

Now, to be clear: Schweitzer doesn't think -- in his heart of hearts -- that he beats Clinton in a primary. He calculates, probably rightly, that he has a 10 percent chance of success -- at best. But, the ultimate goal for Schweitzer is not to win but rather to draw national attention to himself and his ideas.  That same line of thinking is why former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is keeping the door open to running in 2016 if no one else picks up the speak-truth-to-the-establishment mantle. Winning isn't the end goal for either man.  Emerging as a voice -- maybe the voice -- on liberal governance is a win in and of itself for each of them.  Viewed as altruistically as possible, it gives Schweitzer (or Dean) a raised platform to influence the Democratic party as it begins to mull its post-Obama future. Viewed as cynically as possible, it gives Schweitzer a raised platform by which he can emerge as a national television voice, speechmaker and general commenter about politics.

In truth, Schweitzer's motivations probably take some from both strands of thought.  Thinking about running for president -- and actually running -- has become an industry all its own. (See Cain, Herman.) And it's booming.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | December 19, 2013