Politics

01.15.14

Why Brian Schweitzer Has Already Lost

Positioning yourself against President Obama is a good way to alienate the most important constituency in the Democratic Party.

Over at MSNBC, Benjy Sarlin has a profile of former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer that’s worth a read. Schweitzer has clear presidential ambitions, and he’s not just positioning himself as an alternative to Hillary Clinton, but he wants to run as a liberal repudiation of Obama. Here’s more:

A Schweitzer presidential candidacy would be a long shot by any measure. He has no national profile and a heterodox political persona that’s served him well in rural, libertarian, and energy rich Montana but doesn’t necessarily sync with the average Democratic primary voter. Clinton, while still undeclared, is such an overwhelming favorite that donors-in-waiting are already competing for territory.

But what Schweitzer does have is a message that’s unique in the likely Democratic field. The former governor is gambling that Democrats won’t just want an alternative to Clinton in 2016–they’ll want a complete and total rejection of the Obama presidency.

Schweitzer is best described as a left-libertarian or “liberaltarian”; he’s skeptical of the NSA, pro-single payer and pro-marriage equality, but he opposes strict gun control and denounces the Affordable Care Act as “corporatist,” borrowing an attack that’s popular on the Right. Indeed, he seems designed to bridge the oft-discussed “wine track”/“beer track” divide in the Democratic Party, with positions that appeal to educated elites and working-class whites.

But the Democratic divide has as much to do with race as it does with class, and that’s where Schweitzer runs into problems. I think the “wine track”/“beer track” divide in the Democratic Party is overstated, but insofar that it exists, it turns on the allegiance of working-class African Americans. Sizable support from black voters is key to winning a Democratic presidential primary, and if there’s a long-standing weakness to left or left-leading candidates, it’s that they’ve never had that appeal.

What made Barack Obama unique, after all, was his ability to combine heavy African American support with “wine track” constituencies to form a majority coalition, whereas—previous contests—blacks were more likely to support the establishment choice.

If Schweitzer is an unlikely choice for the Democratic nomination, it has less to do with his low national profile, and everything to do with his pronounced Obama-skepticism. Black voters have their concerns with the Obama administration, but the president is held in high esteem. Which is to say that, if you’re going to distance yourself from the administration, you have to do so without without attacking Obama as a figure. Otherwise, you’ve alienated African Americans and crippled your bid for the nomination.