Buddy Roemer is the kind of politician who likes to use your first name in conversation—a lot.
“That’s a good question, McKay!” he exclaims when I ask him why he decided to become a Republican halfway through his first and only term as governor of Louisiana. “You gotta stop asking these questions!”
Unfortunately for him, that will be one of the easier queries he faces in the coming months, as he tests the waters in a long-shot bid for the Republican nomination in 2012. Roemer hasn’t won an election since 1987. As governor, he became something of a state joke when he entrusted his emotional well-being to a new-age guru who instructed him and his staff to ward off negative thoughts by snapping a rubber band on their wrists and saying, “Cancel. Cancel.” And his only real claim to national fame is losing his bid for re-election to the statehouse in a primary to a veritable neo-Nazi. But today, none of that is preventing him from exploring a White House run.
“Thursday, I’m announcing an exploratory committee,” he says in a cheerful New Orleans accent, making him only the second Republican candidate so far to officially declare his intentions. ( The other is pizza magnate Herman Cain.) “And then I will proceed to explore, to think through, to listen to people—I call them plain people—throughout America.”
It’s easy at first to dismiss Roemer as a kook—or, worse, a cynical opportunist looking to cash in a brief, buzzy presidential run for a future book deal or a cushy cable gig. But while his stated campaign strategy is hugely untenable—more on that below—he insists his intentions are sincere. And, well, maybe he’s telling the truth.
“Many will say that ‘he doesn’t have a chance,’ that ‘he’s not to be taken seriously,'” he says, pausing for emphasis and then lowering his voice. “Watch me, McKay.”
So far, Roemer’s platform is thin. He doesn’t have a lot to say about entitlement reforms or Middle East engagement. Instead, Roemer, who served seven years in the U.S. House, appears to be putting all his eggs in one basket, and betting that the message will resonate among populists in both parties. His target: something he calls “the money monster.”
“People are asking, ‘Why are you coming back?’ And I say it’s because there’s a need here. I am unimpressed and frightened by the money culture in Washington…
“Many Congressmen are auctioning themselves off for retirement. You have a health-care bill without any tort reform. I wonder how that happened. You have a financial-regulation bill that doesn’t require major banks to follow the same rules as every other company. Gee, I wonder how that happened.”
His bid to free Washington from the grips of the money monster will start with his own campaign. Roemer says he will refuse to accept donations from corporations, PACs, or special-interest groups, and that he will limit personal donations to $100 per individual. Slate’s Dave Weigel has already pointed out that such an approach to fundraising will make it all but impossible to raise enough cash to launch a credible campaign—but Roemer is ignoring the naysayers.
“I will declare my independence from the ‘all I want is access’ money,” he says proudly, insisting that this is more than just campaign window garnish. Indeed, he says, “I happen to think this is key to fixing most of the problems that are ailing America.” It’s a bold claim, and I press him to outline specific policy proposals that will solve the problem. At first he demurs—“That’s for future times,” he says—but then, as though the thought is just occurring to him, he offers, “When Congress sees the success I have with my own campaign, they will turn and say, ‘How did you do that?’ and ‘How does that work, and how does the Internet work?’ I’m not going to dictate to them.”
Robert Mann, a professor of mass communications at Louisiana State University, and a one-time reporter who covered Roemer when he was in Congress, says the politician has always relished being perceived as a "maverick." As a conservative Democrat, he was one of the first members of the House of Representatives to cross party lines and work with Ronald Reagan. And, later, as a governor hoping for re-election he switched parties because, Mann speculates, "he saw that the state's politics were trending conservative, and he thought it would be easier to be re-elected." (Roemer, on the other hand, insists he switched parties to add partisan variety to the Democrat-dominated state. He points to Gov. Bobby Jindal's election as a success made possible, in part, by his own political trailblazing.)
Of course, this independence comes with some baggage that may not smell so rosy to GOP primary voters. As governor, Roemer vetoed an anti-abortion bill because, he says, it "didn't do enough to protect the life of the mother." And he has a record of supporting environmental regulations that will surely be viewed with suspicion by the party's more adamant climate skeptics.
But while Roemer's maverick persona has a mixed track record of electoral success, Mann says he still has the intuition of a good candidate. "If there's a politician that could talk a bird out of a tree, it would be Buddy Roemer," says Mann. "There's a refreshing quality to his rhetoric, and a freedom that comes with not being beholden to any party."
There may or may not be more to Buddy Roemer than an entertaining 20-minute interview. But even if rhetoric's all he's got, he'll still have an important place in the 2012 primary. Namely: on the stage, drawing attention to every other candidate's dance with the "money monster."
McKay Coppins reports on politics and culture for Newsweek.