From yesterday’s New York Times Opinion Section by Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT):
HELENA, MONT. — I AM no fan of Neil Gorsuch or his legal theories, but his appointment to the Supreme Court raises a question that Democrats must answer. Justice Gorsuch is the first person from the Mountain States named to the court since Ronald Reagan chose Sandra Day O’Connor from Arizona in 1981. Since then, Democratic presidents have appointed four justices, all more or less drawn from the Washington-New York-Harvard-Yale corridor. Why was it left to President Trump to finally take a person from the American West or, for that matter, anywhere from the interior of the country?
I ask this because a related question has been put to me lately. On the night that Hillary Clinton got 36 percent of the vote in Montana, I won re-election comfortably, running on progressive ideas and against an extremely wealthy Republican opponent. Ever since, national reporters have asked me whether Montana Democrats have some secret recipe, given that we’ve won the last four elections for governor, that might be used in national campaigns. I tell them yes, we do.
But it’s not really a secret, or all that hard to figure out. Above all, spend time in places where people disagree with you. Reach out. Show up and make your argument. People will appreciate it, even if they are not inclined to vote for you. As a Democrat in a red state, I often spend days among crowds where there are almost no Democratic voters in sight. I listen to them, work with them and try to persuade them.
Democrats as a national party have ceased doing this. This has to change. They should take a more expansive view of the America that exists beyond the confines of the Eastern Seaboard. To use a local analogy, Democrats should try casting the fly line a little farther out into the river.
The party has plenty of room for improvement here, in both politics and government. Only one person from the interior West has ever served as the party’s chairman. The last five came from up and down the I-95 corridor. The last vice-presidential pick from west of the Mississippi River was 29 years ago, and as concerns Montana specifically, it was not until last month, after 129 years of statehood, that a person from our state was named to a president’s cabinet.
If you’re not geographically diverse, it’s hard to even speak a language that makes sense to folks in faraway places. That’s especially a problem in the West, where voters have always mistrusted the federal government. Lately we watch cable news broadcasts coming from New York, featuring creatures of Washington and a dialogue full of lifeless talking points that either defend or assail some federal policy or proposal. That’s the native tongue of Washington, and it’s a language the Democrats’ last three losing presidential candidates spoke fluently but that almost always misses the reality of what Americans, especially those far from the nation’s capital, think and feel.
On health care, for example, Montanans aren’t in love with Obamacare — but they don’t want to see it eliminated, either. Our state voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, yes, but voters of all stripes here want a system where everyone is covered, and they supported me when I expanded Medicaid to cover 70,000 low-income Montanans. And yet many of us were puzzled by the Democrats’ resistance to make any changes at all to the Affordable Care Act, given the often outrageously high premiums and deductibles.
And there are some progressive battles that Western Democrats have been left entirely to ourselves to wage. It wasn’t long ago that the Citizens United decision focused the nation on the corrupting influence of money in politics. Washington has apparently moved on, but in Montana we kept fighting; in the past few years we eliminated all of the anonymous corporate campaign expenditures that used to plague our state elections, often millions of dollars a year. This dark money is now illegal in Montana, and we are bringing, and winning, legal actions against the bad actors.
In the past decade Democrats in the West have battled a bizarre but powerful right-wing movement to allow wealthy individuals to take ownership of public lands and close them off, an issue on which even some of the most conservative voters here side with Democrats. These are our forests and parks and rivers, great equalizers where all citizens can escape to hunt, fish and hike, activities central to our heritage. But it barely moves the needle in Washington, because it seems like such a faraway issue to people inside the Beltway bubble.
I remember a humorous episode from Bill Clinton’s presidency in which his advisers prevailed upon him, one summer before his re-election campaign, to spend his vacation in Montana and Wyoming instead of the usual Martha’s Vineyard. The theory was that he’d benefit from hanging out someplace a little more down to earth. He took the advice, and won re-election. It’s a lesson Democrats should take to heart.