TRAHANT REPORTS—There are three lessons that the Hillary Clinton campaign could learn from team Bernie Sanders. And there is one critical lesson from Clinton that could help Indian country win more elections.
A little background first.
I have been writing about political campaigns for 40-plus years. I’ve seen an evolution in how presidential candidates reach out to Indian country.
Early on the connection with Indian country was mostly seen as a constituent service. Candidates visited. Showed their face. Even said vote for me. Many even published nifty policy papers written by folks who work every day on Native issues. But there was no real connection.
My first experience with that was in 1976 at a press conference with the new President-elect Jimmy Carter. At a press conference I asked him how reserved tribal water rights would fit into a Carter water policy? He looked at me and then said that was a question for the Interior Secretary. Next.
That started to change when Jesse Jackson ran for president. I remember him walking into the Navajo Nation Council and he wasn’t just there. He was present. The response from the tribal delegates was just as real and emotional. There was a connection.
Barack Obama did Jackson one better when he campaigned on the Crow Nation in May of 2008. And that connection paid off: Obama has had one of the most successful presidencies in history and that’s especially true when it measure what has occurred in the area of Native American policy.
Has it been a perfect eight years? Of course not. But compared to other administrations — even good ones — this has been a remarkable ride. Obama delivered on his promises. Period.
So with that history fresh in my mind I think Bernie Sanders raised the level of expectation to an even higher standard.
What made the Sanders’ campaign so remarkable is that it took what had been a special event — a visit to Crow, for example — and it made it a routine part of the campaign. When a Sanders event was near Indian country (or better within a tribal nation) everyone from the candidate to his staff knew what to do.
This is how campaigns should be run. It conveys a level of respect to the first people of this continent in a way that defies history.
How would this have translated into policy? That we will never know. Unless. Unless Secretary Clinton picks up the best elements of the Sanders campaign and adds something more. This is entirely possible. She does have a history in Indian country that goes back a long time, at least as far back as her legal services work, and with the right people to help her, she could find that next level.
So here are three things I’d like to see the Clinton campaign do.
First: When campaigning in or near Indian country make sure the protocol is public. The fact is that Clinton met with tribal leaders in Nevada and Iowa long before this election became contested. But the meetings were private. I understand that it was a nod to tribal sovereignty — and that’s important — but it does not generate a broader base of support in Indian country. In the general election it would be smart for Clinton to not only campaign in Indian country but to make sure that tribal leadership is part of the dialogue. (To be fair: There was some of that, but it was not communicated well.)
Second: Hire Nicole Willis. Now. The great thing about her role with the Sanders’ campaign is that she had access and authority. It may not seem like Indian country is a big enough constituent group for such a high level post, but it’s a powerful metaphor that goes beyond politics.
Third: Identify Native American surrogates and let them talk. At various points the Sanders campaign did this with Deborah Parker and Tara Houska. This is important because there ought to be a face from Indian country. This has started unofficially, especially on Facebook and within tribal communities, but it ought to be a larger part of the campaign apparatus. I’d love to see Native voices arguing with a Trump surrogate on MSNBC or even Fox. Clinton has a fabulous team of advisers, but they are not public. They should be.
And finally the Clinton campaign did something June 7 that Indian country should make our election cornerstone, early voting. As Harry Enten wrote for fivethirtyeight.com: “Clinton built a tremendous lead in the state from early mail-in votes, and she never relinquished it. Just after midnight, Clinton was up by 26 percentage points with over a million votes counted. By the time all the early vote was in, she was able to take that advantage up to about 400,000. That margin stayed remarkably consistent as more and more of the in-person vote was tabulated. In other words, Sanders fought Clinton to a draw among voters who cast their ballot at the polls yesterday, but the damage had been done by early voters …”
Imagine if Indian country voters did that. No forgetting to get to the polls. No last minute snags. Just votes that are banked in advance. (This can’t be done everywhere, but where it can, it’s a powerful tool.) We can do damage.
We’re going to hear a lot in the next few days about the “lesser of two evils.” I don’t like that phrase. It reminds me of a truth about writing: perfect is the enemy of good. I have disagreements with every candidate, even some passionate splits, but I also look for areas where we agree.
It’s true that politics is about choices, but it’s also about the team of people that come together to make a candidate successful. Look at those who are hired by Clinton from Indian country and you’ll see a wealth of talented people who are ready to govern. Especially if given the chance.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports.