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Home » New West Network Topics » Politics » Denver Democratic Convention » Out West: Land of Opportunity for the Democrats?
I wended my way to Denver from Seattle last week my preferred way, by car. The vast empty of the high desert that comprises most of the geography between the two points always lends itself to some good thinking, and I needed to do some good thinking about this election, where it could lead for our future, and what it could mean for the West.

Out West: Land of Opportunity for the Democrats?

The whole prospect of a “Western” convention was intriguing. Because, up until now, we’ve seen quite a lot of lip service given to the Rocky Mountain states as the new stronghold for Democrats in 2008, but other than “Yucca Mountain” being mentioned at the Nevada debate, not a lot more. Which is as it should be in a national debate. In reality, the region has only a handful of the total electoral votes (39, to be exact, among seven states) means that the hot-button regional or state issues–development vs. public lands access, Yucca Mountain, Idaho’s roadless rules, Navajo water rights, the Colorado River Compact–won’t and shouldn’t dominate a national political debate. (Though McCain’s severe disconnect on both Yucca and the Colorado River Compact speak to how generally out of touch he is on key issues in the region he calls home–we’re not calling him McSame for nothing when it comes to either not understanding or just not giving a damn about majority public opinion. And if he does’t get what’s going on at home, how can he understand the national electorate?)

That said, there are some things happening out here that really should be recognized by the national party as it considers building on what is bound to be an extremely successful election year. That’s because there are some long-term shifts that a few smart politicians–Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester, to name two–grasped early on and have been building upon. That kind of forward thinking will be key to building our majority down the line and gaining and holding the White House. The 2008 national mood, I’d argue, is still throw the bums out–gains made by Democrats this cycle are going to come as a result of us not being them. While the promises of “change” are compelling, for any gains made in 2008 to hold and increase in 2010, 2012 and beyond, there has to be some delivery in the next two years.

There are two highly connected issues that top what Westerners are concerned about leading into 2008–Iraq and the economy, incidentally, the two issues that also popped up most frequently when I was out talking to voters in the region, going door-to-door with candidates in 2006. In 2006, before the home foreclosure crisis hit with such force, most voters defined their economic concerns in terms of health care, but it all boiled down to the same problem: how am I going to afford to keep food on the table and a roof over my family’s head if catastrophe strikes? In terms of Iraq, the issue has such salience out here because so many people have been directly affected by it. Five of the region’s states are in the top 15 among rural states experience war deaths. In these small population states, everyone knows someone who has been to Iraq or Afghanistan, and far too many have been touched by needless death.

What voters are figuring out in the West is that the economy sucks largely because of the war, and we’re in this war largely because of oil. It’s not a situation they are particularly happy about. Last week in Denver, Democracy Corps provided a briefing on their latest Mountain West polling (pdf). They polled 700 Likely Voters in 12 Battleground Districts (AZ 1, AZ 3, AZ 5, AZ 8, CO 4, ID 1, MT AL, NV 2, NV 3, WY AL, NM 1, & NM 2) from August 17-21. The most remarkable finding: 74 percent of these voters think the nation is on the wrong track.

That’s a pretty high indicator of disgruntlement in a region that is generally considered to be Republican on the whole, and that dissatisfaction is centered smack dab on where the country and its economy have been taken by the oil men that have been in charge these last seven years. So what stands out as a particular surprise in this survey probably shouldn’t be such a shocker: these voters have a very strong populist bent. Consider these statements from the survey:

The Democrat says our country is built on a vibrant and growing middle class. But today, our middle class is struggling. We should cut taxes for working families and put an end to tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas and reward those who create jobs in the U.S. We need to make health care more affordable, and invest in alternative energy that will create jobs and lower energy costs. This candidate will cut wasteful spending and won’t take a pay raise until the budget is balanced.


The Republican says we need to cut taxes for families and American businesses, which face the highest tax rates in the industrialized world. We need a simpler, fairer tax code without thousands of rules and regulations. We need to maintain free trade, which lowers costs for American consumers and creates jobs. And we also need to root out government waste in Washington and cut funding for unnecessary social welfare programs.

In this region, famous for its anti-government, anti-tax, libertarian mindset, the Democratic message wins, 53 to 42. The populist roots of the region aren’t so far under the surface, after all. A level playing field, good jobs and a responsible government aren’t the sole property of Republicans anymore, not after the Bush administration squandered it all away.

Two speakers in Denver last week were particularly effective in tying these themes that are at the root of the West’s dissatisfacton–Iraq and the economy–together, and in a uniquely forward-looking way. The key, they told us, for the region and the nation is in the vast opportunities the West holds for providing new energy technologies and resources. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these two speakers were Westerners, Sen. Harry Reid and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Harry Reid made the case:

The history of the last hundred years has been a toxic mix of oil and war.

Wars were funded by, impossible without, and usually fought over oil. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazi invasion of Russia, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and countless other conflicts have been based in whole or in part on the world’s addiction to oil. Even today, dictators and authoritarians from Venezuela to Russia, from Sudan to North Korea, base their actions—and their power to oppress their citizens and threaten their neighbors—solely on access to or sale of oil on the world market.

Since the turn of the new century, those hard facts have come home to America in the most vicious way. Attacked at home by oil-funded terrorists, at war abroad with oil-funded insurgents, threatened in global markets and faced with acquisition of our industrial base by oil-funded multinationals, we must defend America or face her utter destruction.

If we continue to follow this slippery, oil-slicked, downward-winding path, our citizens will shiver in darkness as our resources hemorrhage to Third World thugs whose only virtue is their control of petroleum-based energy….

It is time to bring our nation back to reality. It is time for an energy policy that recognizes national security means ending dependence on oil and that the future is about new ideas and change for the better, not snake oil and quackery.

It is time for recognition that threats to our planet are threats to our great country.

It is time to understand that in the long run, indeed in the short run, we must wean ourselves of addiction to oil.

It is time, my friends, to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States.

and Brian Schweizter brought it home:

Right now, the United States imports about 70 percent of its oil from overseas. At the same time, billions of dollars that we spend on all that foreign oil seems to end up in the bank accounts of those around the world who are openly hostile to American values and our way of life. This costly reliance on fossil fuels threatens America and the world in other ways, too. CO2 emissions are increasing global temperatures, sea levels are rising and storms are getting worse.

We need to break America’s addiction to foreign oil. We need a new energy system that is clean, green and American-made. And we need a president who can marshal our nation’s resources, get the job done and deliver the change we need….

In Montana, we’re investing in wind farms and we’re drilling in the Bakken formation, one of the most promising oil fields in America. We’re pursuing coal gasification with carbon sequestration and we’re promoting greater energy efficiency in homes and offices.

Even leaders in the oil industry know that Senator McCain has it wrong. We simply can’t drill our way to energy independence, even if you drilled in all of John McCain’s backyards, including the ones he can’t even remember.

That single-answer proposition is a dry well, and here’s why. America consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil, but has less than 3 percent of the reserves. You don’t need a $2 calculator to figure that one out. There just isn’t enough oil in America, on land or offshore, to meet America’s full energy needs.

Barack Obama understands the most important barrel of oil is the one you don’t use. Barack Obama’s energy strategy taps all sources and all possibilities…. Invest $150 billion over the next 10 years in clean, renewable energy technology. This will create up to 5 million new, green jobs and fuel long-term growth and prosperity….

I’m not a big fan of Schweitzers “clean coal” plans, because frankly, we haven’t seen the proof yet that it really is clean, and we’ve got the little problem of where the water that’s necessary for the process is going to come from. But nonetheless, the message both Reid and Schweitzer gave was one tailor-made for the West: independence. It’s a message that will soon be resonating far beyond the Rockies, and if the Democrats heed it, and act on it, it might just restore our country.

Editor’s note: Joan McCarter’s weekly blogs are part of NewWest.Net/Politics’ “Diary of a Mad Voter” feature, a group blog, published in partnership with the Denver Post’s Politics West intended give a glimpse into the hearts and minds of several independent-minded voters and thinkers in the Rocky Mountain West in the ’08 election cycle. For more columns check in with www.newwest.net/madvoter. And for more information on each of the bloggers, click here.

About Joan McCarter

Joan McCarter is a contributing editor at Daily Kos, writing as "mcjoan." She has focused on Iraq, the traditional media, and electoral politics at the blog. During the 2006 election, McCarter focused her writing on Democratic prospects in the west. She traveled throughout the Rocky Mountain states through the last weeks of the campaign, researching and writing about Democratic candidates and campaign strategies. She is currently researching a book on western politics scheduled to be published in spring, 2008. McCarter worked on Capitol Hill for then Congressman and now Senator Ron Wyden. She has broad campaign experience and has been deeply involved in Democratic politics since childhood. She has a master's degree in international studies from the University of Washington and worked as a writer, editor, and instructional designer at the UW from 1995-2006. She is currently a fellow at Daily Kos.

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  1. Joan McCarter seems to be the one with the “disconnect” on Yucca Mountain. This project is one of the best engineered and scientifically studied in the history of the Department of Energy and the EPA. It is a VERY National issue since the spent Nuclear Fuel we need to store safely is distributed over 33 states and a significant national security issue.
    Congratulations, John McCain for understanding the real value and true safety of Yucca Mountain, not the fear mongers who create new fictional hazards every day without trying to find out the real facts about Yucca Mountain and the its extremely low risk level. Go to the Yucca Mountain site and read about the 20 years of study and safety ananlysis that have gone into this project before you start issuing “Disconnect” statements out of your ignorance.

  2. …Democratic message wins, 53 to 42.

    What’s really impressive is that’s with a multi-year, multi-million dollar rightwing noise machine, corresponding with a mostly spineless Democratic party. If we get our act together, the (big!) sky is the limit.