There is something going on in Montana. Call it neo-populism. Last November, Montanans voted in favor of medical marijuana and shot down an initiative that would have returned open-pit, cyanide heap-leach mining to the state. Mining companies put up millions to raise support for the bill, but Montanans didn't bite. The barons were defeated.
Montanans also forced Republican Governor Judy Martz from office. She had a horrible record and her popularity plummeted in the waning months of her tenure. In fact, Martz was so hated that she decided not to run for reelection. Instead of replacing Martz with another conservative, Montanans opted to elect Brian Schweitzer, a wealthy cattle rancher from the state. Schweitzer is fast becoming recognized as a prototype of the leadership the Democratic establishment is looking for.
Indeed, Democrats could learn a few things from Schweitzer. He's vocal.
He isn't fond of Bush's Iraq venture, insisting that National Guard troops ought to return immediately, and he lets us know it. He thinks Bush's war on Social Security is also bogus. He is working hard to put money back into the pockets of Montana farmers and has a consistent record of speaking out against neoliberal trade agreements. Besides, he's said he thinks Washington is blatantly corrupt.
"If I stay in Washington for more than 72 hours," Schweitzer said after a recent visit, "I have to bathe myself in the same stuff I use when my dog gets into a fight with a skunk."
This doesn't mean Schweitzer is a radical by any means. He's got a long way to go before Trotsky enthusiasts will ever embrace him. Indeed, progressives and others in Montana should continue to pressure Schweitzer to adopt the issues they believe in.
That is how victory is won.
This leads us to an upcoming battle that may be of interest to those looking for a winning formula out West. On the heels of Schweitzer's soaring popularity, there is a Senatorial campaign that we ought to keep an eye on over the course of the next year. Republican Conrad Burns, a Washington good-old boy in the most disgraceful meaning of the term, is up for reelection. And it's time he went down.
Unlike Montana's ex-governor Judy Martz, however, Burns' poll numbers are steady, and the upcoming election is going to be tight no matter who gets the nod on the opposing side. Currently there are four Democrats hoping to challenge Burns next year, Paul Richards, Jon Tester, John Morrison and Clint Wilkes.
Richards is by far the most progressive of the lot: he supports gay marriage, universal healthcare, wants troops out of Iraq now and is an organic farmer to boot. The most prominent Democrat hoping for the nomination is State Auditor John Morrison. But there is nothing exciting about Morrison, save his "iron-clad" support for Social Security. Other than that, he hasn't come out in favor or opposition of, well, anything really.
Clint Wilkes is a moderate ala John Kerry, so he's not worth the energy. This brings us to Jon Tester, a Schweitzer Democrat who might just have the right formula to tap into the populist undertones rumbling across the vast Big Sky. Note: "might".
Tester, a Montana State Senator and an organic farmer, was recently embraced by Seattle's infamous rock band Pearl Jam, whose bassist, Jeff Ament, grew up in Big Sandy, near Tester's family plot. PJ packed the Adams Center in Missoula, Montana on August 29 to help raise money for Tester's campaign. It was a huge success. Almost 5,000 fans attended paying over $40 a ticket. But perhaps the larger significance is that Pearl Jam has a reputation for progressive politics.
Back in 2000, Ed Vedder, Pearl Jam's grouly front man, played numerous concerts for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Vedder is an advocate against the death penalty, he's critical of the IMF and WTO, and during the lead up to war in Iraq his band was on the frontlines denouncing Bush's dubious war, even impaling a Bush mask while singing their anti-W hit "Bushleaguer" in Denver, Colorado. But like so many other former Nader supporters, Vedder and his band mates curbed their anti-war sentiments in 2004 to support John Kerry's pro-war campaign.
PJ guitarist Stone Gossard explained his rationale to Alternet: "Ralph [Nader] was proven wrong, in terms of 'There's no difference between the candidates.' I don't think we'd be in Iraq if Al Gore was president."
Sure, Gossard was misinformed. Bill Clinton bombed Iraq, signed the Iraq Liberation Act and imposed murderous sanctions on Iraq through the UN. Unfortunately, Al Gore supported all of the above. So to say that Gore wouldn't have invaded Iraq is wishful thinking. But this was the effect of ABB. Reality didn't matter.
So even though Pearl Jam opposes the war, there is no guarantee that their man Jon Tester does. Tester has yet to intimate a coherent position on Iraq -- good or bad. Does he want to prolong the occupation? Or does he want troops out now? He won't say. So folks in Montana should demand an answer immediately. Was Pearl Jam's support for Tester, like their support for Kerry, unconditional? If so, that's the worst move they could have made. Demanding nothing of a candidate ensures they'll get nothing in return. But maybe Pearl Jam did demand something of Tester in return for their support. One can only hope.
If Tester is to learn anything from Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, he better realize that in order to win, he has to shoot it straight with the Montana public. He can't be wishy-washy. Tester has to take a position, no matter how unpopular it may be, and stand behind it through thick and thin. And even though Republican Conrad Burns deserves the boot, progressives and other activists should learn from 2004 and stick to their causes, no matter how much they hate the guy. They should press Tester, or whoever is nominated on the Democratic side, to oppose the war. Montanans will respect and elect him for his courage.
That's how the West will be won.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted rate at www.brickburner.org. Joshua can be reached at Joshua@brickburner.org.
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