Wake Up, Wannabe Presidents

Commentary by PAT WILLIAMS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Democratic presidential debate in Nevada last month was promoted as a chance for candidates to engage with the West and its concerns, but it might as well have been held in Anywhere, USA. The moderator, four journalists and most of the audience ignored every critical issue that's central to us here.

The first issue is growth, and the states of the West, by virtually every indicator, lead the nation in population gains. During the 1990s, six of the nation's 10 fastest-growing states were in the Rockies. In the middle of the current decade, the West also leads in GDP, housing starts, family income gains, new small businesses, energy development and gains in ethnic diversity. In many of those categories, the West leads by several-fold.

Throughout the life of this country, Americans have moved West. It has been and remains our seeking place, and in finding our frontiers we have come to recognize, if not entirely understand, the constraints that accompany them. Today's West presents significant Gordian knots, the untying of which is the stuff of presidential leadership. Yet the Nevada debate turned out to be a kind of political bait-and-switch in which nobody explored the unique problems and opportunities facing residents of the West, and by extension, all Americans.

This is the land of wilderness areas, national parks and vast publicly owned prairies, deserts and forests. They're home to the migration routes of the country's great herds and flocks, all now shrinking and under the challenge of retaining their primitiveness in the face of ever-encroaching human activity. Yet there was not a single question about the tension between population increases and the fragility of the land's carrying capacity.

As always, smart journalists found it easy to prod the candidates toward accusation, all the while ignoring the one issue over which we Westerners are always ready to fight. That issue is, of course, water.

In the Rockies -- home to the headwaters of the Missouri and Mississippi to the east and the Colorado and Columbia to our west -- water is an imperative. Yet not a single question about water scarcity was asked of those who would be our president.

Climate change, global warming and their obvious consequences -- desertification, drought, crop loss, business failures -- all portend catastrophe here in these states. Surely, those who would lead us in the White House must have a response to these issues as well as to the runaway oil and gas development that's so radically affecting environmentally sensitive corners of our region.

What else was ignored? Many of the first Americans live here. Not one question was asked about the despair that affects so many of them on reservations. Fires, most of which begin in national forests in our region, ravage our landscape and threaten the lives of firefighters asked to protect homes. But not one question was asked about our priorities for fighting fire in the West. Agriculture, it almost goes without saying, remains a leading industry in the region, yet not one question was asked.

There was a time when federal candidates paid attention to these states, but that was decades ago. For 40 years, we have, with California usually the only exception, been political-campaign flyover country. Occasionally, a candidate will play cowboy, tipping his Stetson just so; another will ski down our ski slopes, more for the photo op than the champagne powder.

That is beginning to change, and it's time we insisted on it. The Democratic Party has agreed to hold its presidential nominating convention this summer in Denver. For the first time in history, presidential debates are being held here in the Rockies. We have assembled a series of state-by-state presidential primaries and caucuses. Our purpose, of course, is to include the Western voice in the nation's presidential selection process and to engage the nation in understanding the promise and problems of all its various regions.

The candidates and journalists must take notice -- not because of any false Western pride but because this storied region offers each American fresh answers to old, unresolved questions. This place presents breathing and thinking space from which to ponder rational solutions. Everyone who lives out this way joins each of you who live elsewhere in understanding that because all politics is local, we want a president who understands America -- all of it.

Pat Williams is a contributor to High Country News (www.hcn.org), where this commentary first appeared. A former Montana congressman, he teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula and is also Northern Rockies director of Western Progress, a nonpartisan public policy institute.

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