The first ballots for the 2016 presidential election will be cast in a little more than seven months. That means between now and January there will be a rush of candidates, a winnowing of those who fail to raise money or attention, and, if we are lucky, a philosophical and practical debate about the challenges facing the United States.
In an ideal world that discussion would include American Indian and Alaska Native concerns. But that never happens (unless you read between the lines).
So the Democrats — Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and the newest entrant, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (who once was a “liberal” Republican) — campaign on issues ranging from protecting and expanding voting rights to switching the U.S. to the metric system.
And the Republicans? Well, just listing the candidates is kind of like making sure you get all the names right when reporting about a school play. There are so many, you’re bound to miss someone. But here goes (in order of recent polling by Real Clear Politics): Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Donald Trump, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. And that’s only the 15 “major” candidates. So in order to make noise in that large a field some of those would-be presidents rode Harley’s across Iowa this weekend, revving up their engines and their rhetoric. Hardly the right atmosphere for a discussion about tribal sovereignty.
The early primary campaign season is not ideal for a serious discussion about Indian country’s issues. The election calendar starts with Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in late January.
Nevada will be the fourth state to vote — and the first state with a significant tribal population. There are more than 30 reservation communities, urban residents, and a total Native American population of about 1.6 percent. More important, Nevada remains a caucus state. So if a large number of Native Americans show up in the right locations, well, all bets are off. (Only 33,000 Republicans voted in the last Nevada caucus out of some 400,000 G.O.P. voters.)
And what if there was a Native candidate as a draw? This ought to be the year to make that so.
A Native American candidate could take advantage of a nasty, undemocratic (but legal) structure. The law allows secret donors to spend unlimited sums of money to benefit a single candidate. So what if a few of the wealthy tribes, and, yes, I do mean casino tribes, raised a lot of money for such a super PAC? (Even though the money cannot go directly to a candidate, it still has been used to boost candidates. In 2012, for example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was on the receiving end of more than $15 million from casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife.)
Coming up with a super PAC candidate from Indian country is a tough sell for Democrats. Even though there are many folks who could (and should) be candidates, there are too few with a large enough political footprint. And taking that much money from a single source runs against what many grassroots type candidates believe anyway.
But on the Republican side, there is someone who has that credibility right now, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe.
Cole is as conservative as his Oklahoma voters yet he is often the voice of reason in the House of Representatives. He’s said that new revenue — meaning taxes — might be needed to get past the sequester and that repealing the Affordable Care Act might not be possible as long as a Democrat is in the White House. This alone distinguishes him from the other 15 Republican candidates running for president.
He’s championed tribal sovereignty and was a key player in the House vote for the Violence Against Women Act. Let me be clear here: Cole fits the orthodoxy of the Republican Party. He supports pipeline construction and increasing oil and gas production. Cole also wants less federal spending and votes for budgets that would have negative impact on tribal communities. But for a Republican primary, and for a Republican candidate, Indian country would still come out ahead, if he were running and raised the issues in Indian country that call out for a larger debate.
The down side of a Cole candidacy is that he would have to give up his seat in the House — and his seniority and influence. That’s probably too high a cost for an improbable presidential quest. But this might be the year to try something outrageous.
Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.