Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
FRAZER, Montana — A couple of years ago I was moderating a debate. At the last minute, one of the candidates called in sick. But we went ahead anyway and spent the next 90 minutes having a conversation with a single candidate. It was the best debate ever. Those of us who were there learned far more about the candidate’s policies, his philosophy, and his temperament.
The Montana Congressional Debate between Rep. Ryan Zinke and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau was not like that. It was formatted such that too many answers only left more questions.
Basically if you share a worldview of Republicans, and Donald Trump, you were probably cheering for Zinke. Flip it around, and if that lens you are wearing is a Democratic one, then it was Juneau’s night. In that way: Montana voters are lucky: There is a stark divide on just about every issue before the public.
Except, at least in this format, when the issue involves American Indian policy. And of course that was the ideal topic for a debate held within the boundaries of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. It was at least the third congressional debate held on a reservation in Montana (and the second on the Fort Peck Reservation).
Juneau, as you would expect, knows these issues. She grew up learning the language and the nuance of what it means to represent Indian Country from Indian Country. She said she has earned the endorsement of the Fort Peck Tribes and has the “full weight of the Assiniboine and Sioux Nations behind her.”
Zinke said he understands the contributions of the tribes and is an adopted Assiniboine. But when the issues went past a minute or 30-seconds there was a lot wanting.
The first question, for example, was from Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board Member Grant Stafne asking about a statement made by the Republican candidate for governor, Greg Gianforte, that Indian Country lacks a consistent rule of law, respect for property rights, and too much nepotism to be successful.
“I stand with tribal sovereignty, tribal government sovereignty, with tribal economic self-determination,” Juneau said. She said she recently rolled out her Indian Country priorities and has visited with every tribal nation in the state.
Zinke’s response was to align Juneau with Hillary Clinton. (This is interesting in itself. Across the country it’s usually Democrats who add Donald Trump’s name to every reference to their opponent. But in Montana, and in Zinke’s campaign, it’s the Hillary this, Hillary that.)
“The truth is I support tribes,” Zinke said. “The truth is I support sovereignty. I don’t think anyone has worked harder trying to get the Blackfeet Water Compact done, about tribal sovereignty, about recognizing Little Shell … I have been out here not because I am your congressman but because I care.” He said he has been to people’s homes, met with councils, and “been to powwows.”
This is where the time limits kick in. I’d love to hear a Republican conversation, a deep, thoughtful, complex back and forth about the issues beyond slogans. Zinke said that tribes need more freedom to be sovereign, free from Washington over-regulation. And Zinke’s tribal labor sovereignty act would do that. But why only labor unions? Why not promote complete tribal jurisdiction, the authority to govern lands and people within tribal boundaries? And, if that is the plan, then why did the Republican majority in the House so vigorously object to the Violence Against Women Act on that very principle.
Zinke proudly dismissed the Affordable Care Act “an unmitigated disaster.” When Juneau pointed out that law includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, Zinke countered, saying his whole sentence should include “repeal and replace.”
All that begs more conversation. How do you repeal and replace when there has never been a single Republican plan presented that includes Indian health (other than the wacky idea to open up supplemental insurance). What’s more: The main reason the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is included in the Affordable Care Act is because Republicans in the House blocked the reauthorization for a decade. Repeal and replace? Sure. With what?
And what about Medicaid Expansion? What is the Republican plan to replace that? Repealing the Affordable Care Act will take away health insurance from nearly 40,000 people in Montana. That may be the most successful component of the Affordable Care Act and it is adding significant resources to the Indian health system, money that mostly remains in local service units.
My favorite missing conversation is about coal. In this race, and indeed, across the country, it’s become a Republican talking point that Washington is responsible for the demise of coal. That Obama! The implication is that if you elect Republicans, coal will come back. The problem with that logic is that global markets have given up on coal. It’s not just Washington. It’s Europe. It’s China. And the result is the biggest drop of consumption of any natural resource in history. An election is not going to change that fact. It’s a global trend, not a political one.
Back to the debate. The format is terrible. Ideas are clipped before they begin. People will walk in and walk out more enthused than enlightened. Then again: It’s a fabulous to have a debate in a community like Frazer. Montana shows how it should be done; kudos to Juneau and Zinke for that. We need politicians to answer questions (even with short answers) in every congressional district with tribal communities. In the end: The words are not nearly as important as being there.
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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