Montana governor tells Harry Reid to butt out

The Helena Independent Record reported last Friday that Montana’s Democratic governor boasted about cursing out one of the most powerful individuals in his party. (Hat tip: Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire.) From Chuck Johnson’s story:

Gov. Steve Bullock said Friday he told U.S. Senate Majority Harry Reid to butt* out when Reid tried to offer his opinion on the governor’s future appointment of a new U.S. senator to replace Sen. Max Baucus.

Bullock told reporters Friday that he received a call from Reid in December before it became public that President Barack Obama would be appointing Sen. Max Baucus as the U.S. ambassador to China.... “He wanted to weigh in on who I should choose and this was before it was even public,” Bullock said. “And I said it was none of your damn business.”

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I hope he pronounced it “Butte.”

This is so unsurprising that I don’t rule out the possibility that Reid volunteered for the snub.

Earlier this week I wrote about the “Green Lanterning” of not only presidents but also presidential nominees (that is, greatly overestimating their power over other political actors). The same thing can happen to legislative leaders, and both Reid and Republican House Speaker John Boehner have been accused of weakness by activists in their respective parties. They must be envious of the fabled tools once used to control members of Congress — the pork-barrel promises, the logrolling, and the parliamentary tricks to get around recorded votes — that have been eliminated by fiscal conservatives and liberal goo-goos.

Without these tools, Reid and Boehner don’t stand a chance against ornery voters. Even as more Americans call themselves independent, fewer of them split tickets or switch parties from one election to the next. But there’s a long history of disgust with party leaders trying to fill political offices or influence elections. Ironically, the “independent” label is almost always a flop in general elections, but it’s catnip to voters in party primaries.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to himself as the “head of the Democratic Party” and tried to influence voters’ choices in congressional primaries; he boldly denounced several incumbents who were blocking his agenda. The effort was almost a complete failure, even as FDR himself remained popular.

Voters love to tell the president and other party leaders to butt out. “Unbought and unbossed” was Shirley Chisholm’s slogan when she upset establishment candidates in a 1968 Democratic primary on her way to Congress, and it’s still the perfect bumper sticker. More recently, several Tea Party candidates have won primaries by taunting opponents for being the choice of party leaders. (See Ted Cruz, who upset Gov. Rick Perry’s favorite for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas; and Rand Paul, who beat Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s candidate in Kentucky.) And primary voters kicked Arlen Specter out of the Senate even though Specter’s switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party was one of President Obama’s greatest coups during his first year.

It’s no wonder that a governor, especially one in a red state, would jump at the chance to say “none of your damn business.” Lt. Gov. John Walsh, who was appointed to the Montana U.S. Senate seat and is running for a full term this fall, has enough baggage with being supported by the governor; he doesn’t need praise from his party’s Senate leader to weigh him down as well. (According to the Independent Record story, Republicans are alleging that Walsh is part of a “backroom deal” involving the White House anyway.) 

Voter suspicion of party leaders is one reason that the United States, for all the recent talk of “polarization,” will never have the military-like partisanship of almost every other democracy in the world. One of the most ridiculous plot twists in the first season of the U.S. version of House of Cards was how the Speaker of the House deposed the majority leader: by threatening to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in party funds on behalf on the majority leader’s challenger in the Democratic primary. In real life, the majority leader would respond, “Great! The only thing my challenger has against me is that I’m party of the leadership. Spending all that money to tell my constituents I’m a troublemaker will save my hide. How did someone as stupid as you get to be Speaker of the House?”

So expect more dumping on Reid and Boehner by their own party members this election year. It’s already happening in Georgia’s GOP primary for a Senate seat. TPM’s Daniel Strauss reports that in that race, “House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is quickly becoming a new litmus test for whether a Republican is conservative. Outside tea party groups have begun targeting Boehner and those who vote with him in recent days.” I don’t expect Boehner to take the bait and tell Georgia voters what to do.

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