WASHINGTON - ''Prez on the Rez'' has come and gone; a good idea ahead of its time.
The plan to bring Democratic presidential candidates before tribal leaders at a forum on Morongo lands in California drew a decent turnout and featured speeches by the three candidates who attended: Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and former U.S. senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel. But of these, only Richardson is given half a chance of becoming the next Democratic nominee to the presidency, and his campaign will have to take fire before long if he hopes to enter the early primary season in 2008 with enough recognition to overtake the frontrunners.
Each of the frontrunners - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Rep. Barack Obama of Illinois and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards - declined to attend Prez on the Rez. They cited scheduling conflicts, as well as the contention in California between gaming tribes and labor unions that oppose some of their sovereign governmental rights over their labor force.
But that is only one among numerous potentially incendiary issues the candidates sidestepped in avoiding Prez on the Rez. In what looks sure to be a third consecutive down-to-the-wire presidential election in 2008, Republican political operatives are standing by to seize upon pro-Indian commitments for use against Democratic candidates in hard-fought precincts. (Of course, Democratic operatives are prepared to return the favor against Republicans, but Republican candidates were not on the guest list for Prez on the Rez.)
The view from Washington, where similar calculations are routine, is that well-paid consultants to the front-running campaigns advised against a Prez on the Rez appearance because a commitment to tribes could end up being used against them, at a cost in votes they simply can't risk. These are national politicians, after all, not profiles in courage.
Kalyn Free has expressed another view. Free conceived of Prez on the Rez as an offshoot of INDN's List, her well-received network for recruiting and advancing Natives within the political system. When Clinton became the first of the frontrunners to bow out of Prez on the Rez, Free addressed scalding remarks to her through the media. Her latest assessment is that if candidates couldn't be trusted to show up and make tribal commitments at Prez on the Rez, they can't be trusted for a commitment to Indian-specific issues once they're in office.
Obama and Edwards have little significant track record in Indian affairs. But Clinton was the first lady during Bill Clinton's term in office. According to the accounts in a classic book of its kind, ''The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond'' by Bradley Patterson, any first lady is a de facto officer or employee of the presidency, as well as a trusted senior counsel. In Hillary Clinton's case, Patterson makes it clear that she had a special role in the Clinton White House and that it involved an emphasis on investments in civil society and social development. The Clinton team specialized in making just such investments in Indian country throughout the Clinton years.
With that in mind, it bears remembering that within days of Clinton's endorsement by Arlan Melendez, the tribal leader from Nevada, the Democratic National Convention Committee had deposited $2 million in the Native American Bank in Denver, where the Democratic Party will hold its nominating convention next year. The $2 million is not a grant, but a deposit that can be drawn on against convention expenses. But not only will the bank earn interest on the sum, it will also be able to make business loans in Indian country that would not have been possible without the extra liquidity provided by the deposit.
The deposit wasn't made at Hillary Clinton's direction - at this point, the party supports all of its candidates. But it bears all the earmarks of Clintonian civil investment and social development, practices directed toward Indian country throughout the Bill Clinton presidency. And one message it sends is that Hillary Clinton, if elected to the White House, can be counted on to carry on the commitment to Indian country that got its start when she was the first lady.
Given the Democratic Party role in the deposit, it may mean that any candidate the party nominates for president will make a similar commitment. But only in Hillary Clinton's case is there an extensive track record in Indian country that can provide a basis of confidence in follow-through, should she be elected to the White House.
Now that Free has had her say, it's time to start listening to the leading candidates for messages that couldn't be delivered at this year's Prez on the Rez.