Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: GOP isn't getting much attention in Indian Country

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is one of only two members of a federally-recognized tribe in Congress. Photo from Flickr

#NativeVote16 – Republicans aren’t getting much attention or votes from Indian Country
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

Who’s winning Indian Country this presidential election season?

On social media it is an intense debate. Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters point to Iowa, Oklahoma, Michigan, Nevada, and, after this weekend, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska, as evidence that Natives are “feeling the Bern.” But Hillary Clinton backers can look at results from Nevada and Arizona and make a case for the former Secretary of State. (Yes, you can argue Nevada either way. There is just not enough evidence for a definitive answer.)

But one thing is certain: Indian Country is voting for Democrats. In Arizona’s Apache County, for example, which is mostly Navajo, Clinton had more votes than the entire GOP field; and Sanders nearly doubled the vote tally of first-place Donald Trump.

And that makes sense for two reasons. First, it fits historical patterns where tribal communities favor Democrats by large margins.

And, second, there are distinct policy differences between the two parties at the presidential level.

Sanders has incorporated Native American issues into his stump speech, including full-funding of the Indian Health Service. Unprecedented. Clinton has a track record in Indian Country that goes back a long ways, even before she was a political figure, and her administration would build on the successes of the Obama years.

And the Republican alternative? Chaos. Imagine a government as crazy as the primaries.

We don’t know much about any of the Republican plans for Indian Country. Except these shared themes: Government is bad, Keystone XL pipeline is good, and there would be a new military emphasis on defeating Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

But what if the Republican nominee is not Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or even John Kasich?

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) was sworn in as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 3, 2015. Photo from Facebook

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole raised the possibility of a Paul Ryan candidacy last week. He said it’s far more likely that one of the three remaining presidential candidates will be nominated, but if there is no consensus, then Ryan would be the logical choice.

“He’s already been vetted, he’s been on a national ticket, millions of people have already voted for him,” Cole said in an interview on C-SPAN. “Frankly, he does represent the kind of vision and values that as a Republican you would want to put forward.”

Ryan is Speaker of the House, and as such, chair of the Republican Convention. The only way he could win the nomination would be in Cleveland after the delegates failed to nominate one of the current candidates. (After the first ballot, delegates are free to wheel-and-deal.) Cole put it this way” “If you can’t win it outright before you get there, I don’t think anybody’s got it in the bag once you arrive. It’ll be very tumultuous. There will be multiple ballots unless somebody’s just literally inches away.”

Cole is a member of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Tribe and a senior House Republican. (Previous: How a third-party candidate can win one state and the presidency.)

Ryan has proposed a radical rethinking of federal programs, including those that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives. He supports the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and has suggested it would be better to send money to states for Medicaid as a block grant. In 2014 as House Budget Chairman, Ryan published a full review of federal programs that address poverty. “We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, ‘Is this working?’ This report will help start the conversation. It shows that some programs work; others don’t. And for many of them, we just don’t know.” His idea was to reshape the way government delivers programs and roll them together to save money.

So Ryan’s War on Poverty review lumped Indian Health Service funding in with other social programs. “The IHS was officially established within the Department of Health and Human Services in 1955 (then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) as part of the Transfer Act. But the federal initiatives designed to increase access to health services for tribal members existed as far back as 1830.” As I wrote at the time, what Ryan calls a “federal initiative,” I call a treaty obligation.

In general, a Ryan presidency would mean substantially less money for federal programs, including those that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

However Cole has in the past disputed that grim assessment. He told Indian Country Today Media Network: “This idea that a Ryan budget means cuts in Indian programs is simply not true. We have evidence that while it lowers overall government spending, it also allows us to reprioritize where the money goes. And on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior and Environment, where I sit, there’s a bipartisan commitment to increasing funding in Indian country well beyond what the White House has asked for. We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded.”

Ryan also has a track record for reaching across the aisle and making a deal. The 2013 budget agreement with Washington Sen. Patty Murray provided at least some relief to the harsh budget measures found in the sequester.

Some relief? That’s hardly a winning campaign slogan.

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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