Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Indian Country needs to see big ideas from political candidates

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) visited the Crow Reservation in Montana. File Photo © Lise King / The Native Voice

#NativeVote16 – Indian Country’s big ideas; the aspirations of a president
Broken promises? Systemic failure? Or aspirations?
By Mark Trahant

There is a simple question that voters consider: What will a candidate do once in office? The system is geared for candidates to make all sorts of wild promises while running for office only to find out those promises are impossible to implement once in office.

A good example of that is President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to close a prison at Guantanamo Bay. The president is trying yet again to do this with less than a year remaining in office and yet Congress isn’t likely to agree.

So is it a broken promise or a systemic failure? A case of a candidate promising far more than he could deliver? Or an aspiration?

There is certainly a lot of promises flying around in the 2016 presidential campaign, promises that have absolutely no chance unless voters elect a new House of Representatives and a new Senate (which is impossible when only a third of that body is up for election). Like it or not the American system of government is designed to change slowly. (Unlike most of the democracies in the world where a parliament has near absolute authority.)

So the campaigns repeat broad themes knowing that they will not come to be. The promises are aspirations, not contracts.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is correct to call for universal health insurance, Medicare for All. It’s a plan that makes sense. Compare us to any other industrial country and we spend far too much on health care, leaving too many people without access, and with results that ought to be unacceptable. It is a measurable, statistical fact that the United States does not have the best health care system in the world.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama discovered the difficult challenge of health care reform in the body politic. Clinton’s 1992 plan, dismissed as “HillaryCare,” didn’t win enough support in Congress. And Obama’s health care reform effort, which focused more on insurance than health care delivery, barely survived the congressional process. That’s why Obama’s Affordable Care Act is modest. It was the best plan he could get enough votes to pass.

So when Sanders calls for universal care there ought to be a hallelujah! But without Congress it’s an empty promise. (If a candidate really wants to implement aspirational goals the only way to make that so would be a legislative slate like those in Canada and other parliamentary systems). A president cannot make it so.

And Sanders is not the only one. This election is ironic because so many Republicans are campaigning on the idea that Republicans win elections and then don’t follow through on those promises (such as repealing the Affordable Care Act or defunding Planned Parenthood). Yet. And this is huge. The promises they are making are impossible to deliver. It’s the ultimate comic strip with Lucy and the football. This time, Charlie Brown, this time.

But that’s not a bad thing. We need Lucy. We need aspiration.

Barack Obama in Crow Agency, Montana

Most candidates say they support treaty rights
Campaign promises fall into two categories. Some are aspirational; some practical.

Consider the messaging to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Nearly every candidate for national office promises to uphold treaty rights. Yet that sweeping statement never translates into full funding for Indian health. Or even a proposed budget for full funding. So while dozens of federal programs are funded via automatic spending, programs designed to implement treaties with tribes must go through the appropriations process. Then it becomes ok to spend less on American Indian and Alaska Native patients than, say, a federal employee.

The aspiration is stated, support for the treaties, but the practical application is never found in a legislative proposal.

Never is the wrong word. Once in a while politicians do at least propose the aspirational.

New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley pushed legislation throughout his career to return the Black Hills to the Lakota. The bill never had a chance but Bradley kept at it, reminding his colleagues about the injustice of the Indian Claims Commission. Damn. Injustice is not the right word either. Theft is more accurate.

Bradley’s message was aspirational. This is necessary in politics because it reminds people what what we can be. (Even if it takes a while.)

Tribal leaders listen to a video message from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the National Congress of American Indians executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 24, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

A promise to Indian Country
Since the Nixon era it’s common for presidential campaigns to make policy promises to Indian Country.

In 1976, for example, Suzan Shown Harjo, Muscogee, was working with Jimmy Carter. The candidate was in Albuquerque and was asked if he would sign the American Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. Harjo said Carter answered, yes, and “I will sign it because my Bible tells me so.” When he became president that promise became law.

In his campaign, Obama was both aspirational and practical. In May 2008 he told people at Crow Agency, Montana, “So let me be clear: I believe that treaty commitments are paramount law, I’ll fulfill those commitments as president of the United States.” That big promise, the aspiration, was impossible and so the president like every other politician in the White House never proposed budgets that would implement treaty obligations.

But on the practical side of the promises, the day-to-day governing, the stuff that can get done, Obama set a new presidential standard. He included tribes in a government-to-government discourse, included Indian health in his health care reform ideas, supported tribal criminal jurisdiction, including the Violence Against Women Act. Indeed, the list of practical promises fulfilled could fill an entire column. A perfect record? No. But an extraordinary, practical list of successes that ought to be a basis for what comes next.

And that’s where the discussion about the 2016 campaign begins.

So far the Republicans running are focused on their base and are unlikely to propose any aspirational or practical policies for Indian Country. (Except for Ben Carson’s YouTube video to NCAI and Ted Cruz whose land policies would be a disaster for tribes.) This is telling. You would think that this week, with the Oklahoma primary ahead, there would at least be an aspirational message from the campaigns.

On the Democratic side both Clinton and Sanders are detailing what they would do in office.

Sanders is interesting because his campaign is largely aspirational. It’s one of the reasons he is so successful with the millennial generation. These are aspirations that make sense. But, as I have already written, universal health care is not going to happen without democratic reform. It’s the same with his free college proposal. Aspirational.

But at the National Congress of American Indians meeting in DC this week, Sanders’ National Political Director Nick Carter was practical. He basically offered a platform that built on the success of the Obama years. Specifics ranged from senior tribal appointees at each cabinet agency (a proposal that’s carbon-dated from the Nixon administration), improved tribal consultation before decisions are made, making sure that all grants open to states and local governments include tribes, and requiring an OMB position that exclusively focuses on tribal concerns.

“Senator Sanders is committed to the notion that tribes know what is best about how to make positive decisions on behalf of their own people,” Carter said. “He acknowledges the disastrous consequences of federal micromanagement of tribal nations and is committed to empowering tribes to continue to strengthen their infrastructure and to direct their own economies and above all to protect their people and people living on reservations.”

Carter said that Sanders campaign would continue to put together a comprehensive policy platform.

The Clinton campaign also added more details advisor Ann O’Leary spoke at NCAI. The campaign also released a briefing that is more practical than aspirational. It did call for “the United States should fulfill its treaty obligations and trust responsibilities to Tribal Nations.”

But that was followed by a to-do list that included: Better consultation with tribes, strengthening public safety on reservations, and increased opportunity for youth. All good stuff. Clinton’s health care message is particularly pragmatic. “Hillary will continue to build upon the success of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and work to reduce health disparities. She will defend the ACA, which gives Native Americans more health care choices if they choose to participate with improved insurance protections, such as no-cost preventative services, and prohibitions on denial of insurance coverage to children with pre-existing conditions,” the briefing says.

That’s practical. Legal. Doable. Sigh. It would be nice to hear aspirations, too. Beyond treaty rights.

We need big ideas for Indian Country. There are so many proposals that could change the future.

How about a voting system that makes certain that Native Americans have a voice in Congress, state legislatures, the courts, and in government?

How about a plan to make tribal nations whole, adding lands and resources, an idea that would honor Bill Bradley’s memory?

Or, I like this idea, how about a candidate who says, “I will fight to have Indian Health funded at the same level that the government spends on health care for its own employees.”

It’s during the campaign when aspirations matter. The practical can wait.

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

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