Schweitzer's Bizarre Strategy for Challenging Hillary Clinton

Schweitzer's Bizarre Strategy for Challenging Hillary Clinton

By Bill Scher - June 9, 2014

Last week, in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the release of "Ghostbusters," we learned about Sigourney Weaver's dubious audition. The actress told Vanity Fair that she showed director Ivan Reitman how she would interpret the “Terror Dog” her character becomes at the end of the movie: “I remember starting to growl and bark and gnaw on the cushions and jump around. Ivan cut the tape and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’”

Last week, in the pages of Time magazine, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer auditioned for the role of Democratic primary challenger to Hillary Clinton. He also decided to growl, bark and gnaw on the cushions.

He slammed his own party as “partially owned by corporate America.” He suggested that President Obama “roll[ed] over and [got] scratched on the belly by corporations like a fat dog.” He ripped Obamacare as giving “your taxpayer dollars to private insurance companies.” He even reached back to Woodrow Wilson to attack Clinton: “You can’t be the candidate that shakes down more money on Wall Street than anybody since, I don’t know, Woodrow Wilson, and be the populist.”

There may be an opening to challenge Clinton from the left, notwithstanding her stratospheric polling numbers across the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum. Some think the post-recession anger towards the one-percenters may leave her vulnerable to attacks tying her to the previous Clinton presidency, with its record of financial deregulation and expanded international trade. Even if that’s not enough to deny her the nomination, a faction on the party’s left flank may be inclined to breathe oxygen into a primary challenge so issues related to economic inequality will dominate the 2016 political discussion.

But Brian Schweitzer’s “Terror Dog” approach is unlikely to exploit the opportunity.

Schweitzer may fancy himself the 2016 version of Howard Dean, who shook up the 2004 primary by appearing before the Democratic National Committee and incredulously asking, “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?”

Dean was trying to rally a stunned and divided party struggling to respond to a Republican commander-in-chief whose job approval ratings had soared in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Today’s backdrop is dramatically different. A Democrat is in the White House, and Democrats remain pretty happy about that. Obama’s approval among party members is generally around 80 percent.

Moreover, Democratic support for Obamacare is similarly high: 76 percent. Many rank-and-file Democrats feel personally invested in defending the signature achievement of the Obama presidency. Schweitzer’s introduction to primary voters as the guy who thinks Obama’s biggest legacy is a fundamentally rotten sellout to special interests at best appeals to one-fifth of the primary electorate.

Less obvious at first glance, but potentially revealing, is his animus toward the man who brought the early 20th century progressive wave to the Democratic Party: Woodrow Wilson.

Schweitzer’s knock on the 28th president last week was not his first. In a January interview with Slate he used Wilson in his attack on Obama: “I called [Obama] a corporatist. He seems to be OK transferring taxpayer dollars into pharmaceutical companies’ pockets. He’s certainly OK transferring them into the military-industrial complex’s pockets. He’s not unlike Woodrow Wilson, who was the last really big Democratic corporatist.”

This is the stuff of cranks, and often right-wing cranks at that.

There are three empty charges of corporatism thrown at Wilson: He fought World War I on behalf of corporations; he fused corporations with government to prosecute the war; and he created the Federal Reserve at the behest of bankers.

The claim that the war was fought to line the pockets of the “merchants of death” was popularized in the mid-1930s by Republican isolationist Sen. Gerald Nye, who led a series of hearings designed to make that case, but failed to uncover much evidence. Further, the accusation ignores that Wilson resisted entering the war for years, and only relented after learning Germany had proposed a military alliance with Mexico with the enticement of American territory upon victory. (As detailed in the book “Those Angry Days,” Nye also hurled anti-Semitic charges at Hollywood film executives in the run-up to World War II. And his immediate reaction to Pearl Harbor was “It sounds terribly fishy to me.”)

The specious argument that Wilson tried to use the war to advance a corporatist ideology recurs every decade or so; it was advanced recently by “Liberal Fascism” author Jonah Goldberg. The argument ignores the fact that Wilson faced world war without a significant standing military. If the nationalization of industry were his ultimate goal, he would have fought to maintain it after the war was over, but he did not.

Finally, there is the matter of the Federal Reserve. As Ron Paul wrote in 2010: “One of the most important sectors of the economy, the banking sector, was already quasi-socialist or corporatist. The Federal Reserve, with its monopoly powers and its chairman and governors appointed by the president, has been an extra-constitutional branch of government since its creation in 1913.”

That’s how libertarians view the central bank and the involvement of government to regulate the banking system. And yes, Woodrow Wilson had to compromise between progressives and bankers in order to get it through Congress. But Franklin D. Roosevelt had to balance those interests as well when he expanded the Federal Reserve’s power over monetary policy.  And no one in the Democratic Party with any political ambitions would dare call FDR a corporatist, let alone a violator of the Constitution on behalf of the banks.

So which of these baseless critiques of Wilson is Schweitzer embracing? And what does it say about his fundamental philosophy when he traffics in such shoddy history?

The reality, as I have written in the past, is that compromises with corporate interests are necessary for liberals to get legislation through Congress and advance their goals. Conservatives may want to demean any compromise advancing liberalism, and any regulation deemed acceptable by businesses, as “corporatist,” but why would Schweitzer want to join them?

There may be an opening to challenge Clinton and spark a grand debate over how to tackle inequality. But Schweitzer’s frontal assault on Obama only marginalizes himself in a Democratic primary. And his dubious grasp of history should give Democrats of all stripes serious pause.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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