It's the rare governor who begins an interview with a joke about statutory rape.
But Brian Schweitzer doesn't just throw caution to the wind. He flings it skyward like a clay pigeon then blows it, skeet-style, to smithereens.
That makes the Montana Democrat both an irrepressible personality and irresistible subject for reporters, who love nothing more than a politician who slips the bonds of pollsters and press handlers and speaks, if not truth, something that doesn't sound like its been focus-grouped to a near-catatonic state. (“I would swear she was 18 at the time,” was how Schweitzer began that Los Angeles Times interview on Montana and guns some years ago.)
But Schweitzer may have overstepped not just the bounds of good taste but the load-bearing weight of his political ambition with a pair of recent utterances that gained wide circulation Thursday.
In a lengthy profile published by the National Journal, the former Montana governor weighed in, free-associative style, on the upset last week of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia:
“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.... 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 to 70%. But he's not, I think, so I don't know. Again, I couldn't care less. I'm accepting.”
Elsewhere, discussing the domestic spying scandal and the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Schweitzer described California Democrat Dianne Feinstein this way:
“She was the woman who was standing under the streetlight with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees and now she says, 'I'm a nun,' when it comes to this spying I mean, maybe that's the wrong metaphor — but she was all in!”
For a party that considers itself a champion of women and gays — and never passes on a chance to attack Republicans as benighted if not downright hostile to same — this is not exactly ideal messaging.
Indeed, even as Republicans were quick to pounce Thursday, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee expressed the party's formal consternation. “Gov. Schweitzer's comments are disappointing,” said spokesman Michael Czin.
“However,” he went on, apparently unable to pass on the chance, “if the [Republicans] want to have a debate over which party better respects women and the LGBT community, that's a debate we'll have any day of the week.”
Feinstein told Politico on Thursday that she was aware of the remarks and laughed when asked about them. “You better keep him away from my husband,” she said, then stepped onto the Senate floor.
Schweitzer, who left office in January 2013 after two terms as governor, has been hinting at a possible 2016 run for president. He seems determined to leave scarcely a bridge unsinged in the process.
Voluble as ever, he dismisses President Obama as inept and a disappointment and characterizes Hillary Rodham Clinton, the commanding Democratic front-runner, as a corporate tool and not terribly effective secretary of State.
He popped up last week, of all places, at Mitt Romney's Republican donor summit in Park City, Utah, where he joined the pile-on over Clinton's lucrative speaking fees. “I'm not going to defend what she said,” Schweitzer told the GOP crowd, referring to the former first lady's I-left-the-White-House-dead-broke defense.
Schweitzer's presidential bid was already going to be an extreme long shot, regardless of whether Clinton runs. While his left-leaning populism has an eager audience among Democrats, his strongly pro-gun stance is at stark odds with the party's prevailing sentiment.
He disappointed some by passing on a run this year for an open U.S. Senate seat, strongly boosting chances of a Republican pickup and the six-seat gain the GOP needs for a takeover in November.
And for all its spectacular beauty, Montana doesn't offer much in the way of a financial or political base from which to mount a White House bid.
Now those already daunting odds have grown even steeper after Schweitzer's verbal self-immolation in the pages of the National Journal, which serves as a sort of Washington field guide to politics and policy.
Back home, the remarks were surprising only in degree; many had gotten used to, if weary of, Schweitzer's off-the-cuff, over-the-top musings. While the lack of filter seemed novel and engaging at first, over time it grew tiresome and even offensive, said one former political ally who, like many onetime supporters, eventually grew disenchanted with the governor.
Stephanie Schriock, a former Montana Democratic strategist and the head of Emily's List, an organization that boosts female candidates, said Schweitzer “owes Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Eric Cantor, the men of the South, LGBT Americans, and women everywhere an apology.”
“But,” she added, “I don’t want to suggest he continue talking.”
On Thursday afternoon, Schweitzer said he was sorry in a post on his Facebook page.
“I recently made a number of stupid and insensitive remarks to a reporter from the National Journal,” he wrote. “I am deeply sorry and sincerely apologize for my carelessness and disregard.”
Too late, it would seem. The political damage has been done.
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