When the Democrats gathered in Denver for their convention, there was a lot of heady talk, and expectations were running high, that winning the West was within the party’s reach. It still may be. But the exuberance and self-assurance waned a bit when John McCain surprised nearly everyone by shrewdly selecting a down-to-earth, small-town Westerner (yes, Alaska counts), Sarah Palin, as a running mate. Palin is perceived as someone who knows how to speak the West’s language, and as someone who connects with Western values, something neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden can claim. Now the West seems again up for grabs.
Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart is trying to salvage his party’s Western strategy not so much by stumping for the Obama-Biden ticket, but my educating party insiders about what they need to do, issue-wise, to make lasting inroads in the region. And I think, for the most part, he offers some sound advice – if the party can take Hart to heart.
Hart’s ideas are distilled in a 10-point manifesto, which is condensed as follows by examiner.com:
-Protect the sanctity of property. The party should condemn the Supreme Court decision allowing eminent domain for commercial use.
-Protect natural resources. Except in the most rock-ribbed, pro-development areas, westerners are for balancing resource development with resource conservation. Most want minerals, timber, and other resources developed at a reasonable pace on a reasonable timetable.
-Energy and the environment. Development of coal, oil shale and other fossil fuels, uranium, nuclear power and hydro projects should be undertaken with maximum attention to the environment. Encourage renewables such as solar, wind and biomass.
-Public lands. The federal government is the dominant landlord in the West. National forests, public lands, national parks and wilderness areas put the federal government front and center in planning for the region.
-Recreation. Recreational industries are crucial to the region's economy. Their profits are tied to preservation.
-Growth and the economy. Westerners want to maximize contradictory values. Life-stylers want growth controlled and often limited. Entrepreneurs want resources developed to achieve maximum profit.
-Technology. The West is the technology base of America, and the Democratic Party should promote regional high technology education and training centers to stimulate this trend.
-Mediation and arbitration. All of this balancing requires political leadership which understands the history and culture of the region. The party has been seen almost exclusively as a captive of the environmental movement.
-National security. The West is keenly focused on national security issues, having been the base for much of the nation's Cold War military structure and defense contracts. Democrats are not seen as having a coherent outlook on America's military role in the 21st century.
-Principles and values. Westerners do not like the beliefs of others imposed on them and are people who believe in principles: integrity, honor, courage, accountability. The religious right preaches values. Democrats should espouse principles.
The problem, though, is that some of Hart’s best suggestions, like getting the Democrats on the right side of the property rights issue, are fundamentally at odd with the party’s collectivist, command and control mindset.
The Kelo decision, though abhorred in Mainstreet America, was cheered by many urban politicos -- a key party demographic -- who view intransigent property owners as an obstacle to their grand urban development plans. And the party’s incestuous relationship with green extremists, which view property rights as a major stumbling block to “saving the planet,” a hindrance to fuller implementation of all the major environmental laws, from ESA to NEPA, and a hassle for the “smart growth” and “sustainability” movements, inhibits the party’s ability to take the moderate, common sense tack on energy and public lands issues Hart proposes.
Another major challenge to winning over Westerners, which does not appear as one of Hart’s 10 points, is the party’s inconsistency and disingenuousness on the issue of federalism -- on the desire of Western states for more autonomy from Washington, and for a true partnership in managing federal lands. A party that seems all about Washington, as the Democrats still do – about amassing power and resources in, and imposing “solutions” from, the capital city – can’t also credibly reinvent itself as the party that would give the West more latitude to go its own way, on energy, on public lands and on loosening the federal regulatory controls that often fall hardest on the region. My August 22 blog post on Ken Salazar’s cowboy hat -- here -- lays out some specific inconsistencies.
Here, too, the party’s alliance with the environmental lobby is a major liability, since these groups prefer that almost complete control over Western land decisions be vested in Washington, where greens get a respectful and receptive hearing, from Eastern politicians especially, and their lobbying and legal clout is most focused. Most Westerners outside the city centers, unless they're transplants, quite rightly view The Sierra Club and similar groups as an alien enemy, not an ally, because these groups have come to see saturation litigation, endless red tape and the analysis paralysis endemic to Washington as good for their agenda. This agenda opposes active forest management, opposes realistic energy development, disregards property rights, refuses to reform Draconian laws like ESA and NEPA, and wants to evict a good portion of the public from the public lands, in a bow to what I call recreational correctness. And all these values clash with those of most common-sense Westerners.
Some Democrats have been trying to distance themselves from teachers’ unions, in a bid to move the party forward on public school reform. But until the party can do something similar with gang green, and begins to disavow the anti-property rights, anti-energy development, anti-capitalist, anti-free market, relentlessly extreme positions of this particular constituency, it will have little chance of making big gains in most of the non-urbanized West.