Schweitzer in New York's Times Square promoting Yellowstone National Park. Photo via Flickr user Montana Office of Tourism
In a profile published Wednesday in National Journal magazine, former Montana governor and current Democratic presidential tease Brian Schweitzer remarked that it seemed to him like maybe Eric Cantor was gay:
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. 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.
Cantor’s wife could not be reached for comment. Although Schweitzer made it clear that he accepts the outgoing House Majority Leader’s probable homosexuality, and even though he specifically asked them not to, the national press is still holding this one against him.
At the Los Angeles Times, Noah Remnick complained that “this kind of commentary isn’t folksy—it’s bigoted.” The Washington Post's Aaron Blake declared the end of Schweitzer’s unannounced bid for the White House, writing, “Anybody with illusions that Schweitzer could be a major player in the 2016 presidential race should probably re-evaluate themselves.” That’s how bad his gaffe was: you should re-evaluate not just your election picks, but your very self.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. Democrats can be forgiven for getting excited about Schweitzer, a center-left governor who enjoyed success and popularity in a very red state. He’s smart but still personable, articulate but still casual—sometimes a little too casual, as we saw this week—and his last name is neither Bush nor Clinton. In a denuded political landscape, he seemed like a viable candidate.
I would like to agree with Blake’s belief that voters in 2016 will remember a dumb thing Schweitzer said two years earlier in National Journal, because it shows a commendable faith in the electorate. But it’s possible that this bolo tie-wearing, chainsaw-wielding, perpetually smiling woodchuck has not seen the end of his career just yet.
It’s also possible that in his bonehead remarks, national commenters are getting their first good look at the hypnotic weirdness of Montana politics. Schweitzer’s comments reflect two key features of electoral politics in Big Sky Country: that just-folks attitude, and the tin ear you get from being the only folks you know.
Before we go any further, let us agree that Schweitzer’s comments were incredibly dumb. Even putting aside decades of progress in queer rights and the centuries of brutal repression that preceded them, the surprise resignation of the House Majority Leader is not the occasion to tell National Journal that he seems gay to you. At 60%, Schweitzer’s gaydar might seem accurate enough to speculate about the sexuality of public figures in the national press, but he probably should have restrained himself anyway. Ask any city councilman, much less a governor with presidential ambitions, and he’ll tell you that was a stupid thing to say.
But Schweitzer is stupid like a fox. What he said keeps getting crazier as you read it, but it is also a distillation of the strategy that brought him where he is today. He is a master at appealing to moderate voters in both parties who identify themselves as ordinary folks. Schweitzer’s apparently dumb remarks reflect his years of experience triangulating a divided state electorate, as well as his inexperience doing the same thing on a national scale.
Let’s start with the South. Montanans relentlessly deride the South and those (white) people who live in it, which is weird because to my midwestern eye, they are exactly the same. Both populations are broadly conservative with pockets of intense liberalism. Both are poor with pockets of industrial and agricultural wealth. And both Montanans and southerners place a high premium on rural individualism, whether they actually live that lifestyle or not.
At the beginning of the National Journal profile, MSNBC can’t get its camera truck under the post-and-lintel gate at the entrance to Schweitzer’s ranch, so he cuts it down with a chainsaw. That is insane behavior. Safety aside, after the camera crew is gone, the former governor might look at the ruined timbers of his old-timey gate and wonder if he acted impulsively. But like George W. Bush cutting brush for reporters in Crawford, Texas, Schweitzer is on the lookout for opportunities to be an ordinary person, a good old boy, just folks like you.
It’s a skill he learned by necessity. Schweitzer served eight years as the Democratic governor of a very conservative place, winning by four points in the 2004 election and then by 32 points in 2008. To appreciate the magnitude of that achievement, consider that the Montana House hasn’t seen a Democratic majority since 1991.
A Democrat cannot become governor of Montana based on his policies. A Republican has a hard time doing it, too. The Montana electorate is so strangely polarized, such a bizarre mix of social conservatives and freakout libertarians—plus hippies and backwoods hermits and other people who own their own water supplies—that you’re much more likely to get elected based on who you are than on what you propose to do.
Schweitzer has mastered the art of convincing moderates and low-commitment voters in both parties that he is someone like them. In this week’s comments, he put this skill on display.
To political writers at the LA Times and the Washington Post—as well as to those of us who understand gay identity as something other than a fun new thing straight people can talk about—“gaydar” is offensive. But to your mother and the ladies at her office, to the farmer who is beginning to suspect that it doesn’t matter if two dudes get married, talking about how you have a sixth sense that helps you recognize the gay people in your life is a safe way to embrace a new idea.
Brian Schweitzer has built his career on being a safe way for ordinary people to embrace new ideas. As governor of Montana, he made his progressive agenda safe for lifelong conservatives by wearing a bolo tie and swinging a chainsaw around. He did it by goshing and shucksing his way through every TV appearance he could get. He is a student of that political compromise which seeks out not common policies, but a common sense of who the good guys are.
In the South, politicians do that with religion. If there is one difference between Montana and Kentucky, though, it is that Montanans are not so churchy. Where the South has deacons, Montana has ranchers—candidates who embody the ordinary voter’s sense of himself as a classic individualist, someone who is more loyal to his way of life than to either party, more guided by his intuitive values than any political theory.
In short: rubes. Schweitzer’s gaydar schtick is offensive to those of us who follow politics and language closely, because it represents a step backwards in our understanding of gay people. In the time-honored practice of playing to the rubes, however, it’s a step forward.
Schweitzer inappropriately joked about the outgoing House Majority Leader’s sexuality at the worst moment possible. He associated male homosexuality with effeminacy, and he did it using the hackneyed concept of “gaydar,” itself a way for straight people to express their homophobia while pretending to be supportive. But in the 2016 election, the choice would not be between thinking like that and thinking the way we do. The choice would be between Schweitzer’s brand of dopey, chauvinistic tolerance and the Republican Party.
The hardcore homophobes and the libertine VICE readers have already staked out their positions. It’s the dazed, flabby middle that could go either way. Those are the people Schweitzer is trying to bring with him, and he intends to lead them from the middle.
The former governor of Montana said a dumb thing to the National Journal, but he may have said something useful to a broader, less engaged swath of the American people. On Wednesday, he sent the same message he’s been sending his whole career: I’m just like you, and we could both be a little better.