Whatever Happened to the Libertarian Democrat?

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer becomes a star by ditching his limited-government bonafides


Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is a loud-mouthed gun owner. Wayne La Pierre himself once flew to Montana to hand Schweitzer a National Rifle Association endorsement. In office, the governor has stared down Homeland Security capo Michael Chertoff (on anyone's top three list of scariest Bush officials) and helped deal a killing blow to Real ID, the odious legislation that would create a national identity card. All this and more has made Schweitzer the embodiment of that elusive political species known as "libertarian Democrat," mostly Mountain West pols who were pro-gun, anti-tax, anti-PATRIOT Act, and lifestyle pluralists.

Yet none of Schweitzer's limited-government bonafides was present when the governor seized the Pepsi Center stage last night at the Democratic National Convention. Instead of being a proudly contrarian executive of an oil-drilling state, he became a populist rancher raging against "petro-dictators," domestic drilling, and "tax breaks for big oil." Leaning back, then leaning forward with his finger pointed like the guns he didn't mention, Schweitzer country-drunk slurred his insults against the Republican candidate who'd bring "Mora-tha-same!"

Surprise! His performance killed! The buzz among delegates on the interminable path out of the arena, lined with golf carts, blown-up fetus pictures, and bullhorn-hogging bearded loudmouths, was that the large fella with the bolo tie and jeans was this year's Obama 2004. Overheard:

"I think they made [former Virginia Gov. Mark] Warner worse so that Schweitzer would outshine him."

"You send that guy to West Virginia, you see what happens."

"He came to our state convention in Texas. We knew he was going to bring it."

In short, the libertarian Democrat Schweitzer became an overnight party celebrity without sounding a single libertarian note.

There is a lesson here. 

A couple of years ago, all sorts of semi-desperate and forward-looking Democrats were leaning libertarian, at least rhetorically. Now, they're hushing their mouths when it comes to the real L word.

Tuesday afternoon, I saw Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas, author of the "Left-Libertarian Manifesto" from 2006, share a stage with "market Democrat" Bill Richardson and avowed libertarian Tucker Carlson to talk about race and gender politics. After Carlson suggested, plausibly, that Obama would win in a landslide if he declaimed race-based affirmative action and replaced it with preferences based on class, Moulitsas rolled his eyes and told the Kostastic audience to never listen to the advice of "a Republican." Carlson spent the rest of the hour fending off accusations of misogyny and suggestions that he be kicked off the panel.

What makes up the alleged libertarianness of the allegedly libertarian Democrats? As yesterday's events suggested, it's about attitude, not ideas. Moulitsas stared down moderator Dan Abrams of MSNBC, attacked his network for doing John McCain's work for him, and repeatedly made the case for liberals to go on offense. It was the same with Schweitzer: What made him a model for other Democrats was not his heterodoxy on liberal issues, but his belly-first, bar-room swagger.

Across the city, as pols and lobbyists fanned out for luncheons and panels, there was nary a libertarian soundbite to be found. Outside a panel on the "New New Deal," in which union organizers and pollsters preached the gospel of infrastructure spending and national health care, Tom Swan, the brainy union organizer who masterminded Ned Lamont's 2006 primary victory over Vinegar Joe Lieberman, said there was no conflict between Democratic rhetoric on Bush's overspending and the promise of more Democratic spending. "That's a fraction of the money that George W. Bush is wasting on his war in Iraq."

Swan did throw libertarians one bone regarding the coming Democratic hegemony. "There's more openness now after watching the violation of civil liberties," he said. "True libertarians have seen enough to leave the Republicans. Having an administration that believes in our Constitution is going to be a big deal."

Outside the event, lefty activist Ben Masel conceded that Barack Obama didn't offer libertarians very much. "Certainly not on firearms," he said, "and he never made any real promises on drug policy." But Brian Urias, a Clinton delegate from Baldwin Park, California, mused that the Democrats had caved on Second Amendment issues after years of getting browbeat by the Republicans. Yes, Obama is as anti-gun as a national politician gets, Urias said, but he doesn't talk about firearms enough.

Neither, it seems, does Brian Schweitzer. 

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.