BOZEMAN, Mont. — Remember representative democracy? The kind where we voters pick the least objectionable politician to defend the Constitution while we pay our taxes and live our lives? Consider my governor, Steve Bullock of Montana. He is so reasonable, trustworthy and effective that before he started running for president a couple of months ago I would occasionally forget he existed. Reassured that the Helena governor’s mansion was cocooned in competence, I was free to clock in at what has become every dutiful citizen’s unpaid part-time job: monitoring hourly White House flub-ups, each moral or administrative fiasco followed by a succession of time-consuming purification rituals — staring at a grove of aspens, listening to Pete Seeger sing “Shenandoah,” rereading the 25th Amendment, etc.
Introducing himself as the new governor in 2013, Mr. Bullock said, “My name is Steve, and I work for the state.” That is not the voice of a Democrat who wants to do away with the private health insurance of more than half the population. It is the voice of a Democrat who would go on to expand Medicaid coverage — twice — in a blood red state with a Republican majority legislature, a Democrat committed to keeping rural hospitals open, which probably only matters to people who don’t plan their heart attacks two hours ahead.
His is also not the voice of free college or canceling student debt. It is the voice of a Democrat who has shepherded several tuition freezes for residents at the state universities, thereby minimizing the need for loans in the first place. He also beefed up the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program, a public-private partnership among the state and tribal colleges and more than 500 businesses whose graduates earn $20,000 more than the state average. In Montana, that’s a year’s mortgage, about three years of a kid’s tuition at one of the aforementioned state schools, 1,700 movie tickets — that’s a life.
Does Mr. Bullock, with his modest but concrete progress in a state hostile to Democrats on issues all Democrats hold dear, sound boring compared to charismatic candidates promising revolutionary change? I don’t know. Is winning boring?
Like some leftist Dr. Dolittle, Mr. Bullock has a talent for knowing how to talk Republicans into doing Democratic things (including voting for him). It resulted in his re-election in 2016 in a state President Trump won by over 20 points. His crafty approach involves good manners, logic and a willingness to compromise when he can (and veto when he won’t). He sees the good in Republicans because there is good to be seen: Several of the conservative legislators who voted to support the public universities attended them.
This week, Governor Bullock will make his debate debut. As a Montana Democrat, I look forward to it because I have no idea what he sounds like trying to appeal to members of his own party. I assume that’s how he got and kept his job. When he goes out stumping for one of his squishy liberal plots to get fewer people killed, he tends to choose words that won’t make wheat farmers barf. Why, no, old coot in a feed store cap from Roundup, he’s not going to expand Medicaid, he’s going to “bring our taxpayer dollars home.”
Based on Mr. Bullock’s last gubernatorial debate, his competitors in the next contest have no hope of outfoxing him on questions about the business equipment tax, unless Marianne Williamson has also figured out how to get out-of-state corporations to pay for the fire departments of Yellowstone County. On the off chance there’s a question about the nuts and bolts of actual governance, I wonder how the governor could explain, in under 60 seconds, the coalitions of strange bedfellows he conjures to solve problems in a state with seven sovereign Indian nations that’s crammed into a single ridiculous congressional district the size of Japan.
His council on how Montana was going to comply with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan included a never-boring, ex-miner Republican state senator you definitely want pissing from the tent, the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Farmers Union, energy company executives, a couple of Democrats from the Environmental Quality Council, the chairman of the Crow tribe and for all I know the ghost of Norman Maclean. Is it just me or is this sort of room where everybody’s irked for different civic-minded reasons kind of what James Madison had in mind?
Currently, the top four Democratic front-runners, three of whom are Democrats, all represent the country’s edges, the Left Coast and the Other Left Coast. Theoretically this geography doesn’t matter since the Republican incumbent hails from New York City; but he, like his grasp on reality, exists outside the space-time continuum. Think back: What was the most obvious thing about Barack Obama? That’s right — he came from Illinois. A coastal Democrat has not won the general election in 59 years.
That said, a viable candidate doesn’t have to come from a state whose county fairgrounds put the farmers’ market next to the gun show. She could use her humid summer vacation in Iowa to learn how to fake it. It could even be relaxing. I swear Steve Bullock spends half his workday just sitting around listening.
What with too much far left jibber-jabber threatening to Mondale-up the electoral map, I tend to agree with our neighbor Heidi Heitkamp, a former North Dakota senator, when she asked the recent convention of Montana Democrats to raise their hands if they thought the president would probably be re-elected. She admonished them, “All of you should have your hands up.” On the other hand, I understand their unwarranted optimism. In Montana, just as trees grow out of rocks, sometimes the Democrat wins.
Sarah Vowell, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of “The Wordy Shipmates” and “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.”
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