On the eve of the first presidential debate, two Washington insiders – a Republican and a Democrat – presented their views of the race for the White House and the implications for Indian country, depending on who wins the election.
A panel discussion called “Presidential Election 2012: Impact on Indian Country” took place at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas on October 3, with Republican John Tahsuda and Democrat Larry Rosenthal presenting their views. Tahsuda is a principal of Navigators Global, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm where he lobbies lawmakers on behalf of tribal clients. Rosenthal, his Democratic counterpart, is partner in Ietan Consulting, a Washington, D.C. firm that also lobbies on behalf of tribal clients. The moderator was Democrat Tom Foley, president and founder of Foley Law, a national gaming law practice representing tribes and gaming corporations on state and federal regulatory and administrative issues.
With little more than a month to go before the elections on November 6, Foley said there was much anticipation about the first presidential debate that on the night of October 3. He noted too that a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed a narrowing gap between President Barack Obama and contender Mitt Romney with Obama leading 49-46 percent and a margin of error of 3.5 percent. A National Journal poll had the race tied at 47-47 percent with 12 percent of likely voters still undecided who they will vote for.
Rosenthal kicked off the discussion on an upbeat note that he feels a lot better now than he did at last year’s G2E about Obama’s prospects for re-election. After the trouncing Democrats took in the 2010 election, heading into this year most political analysts felt that President Obama was very vulnerable and that the Republicans had a good chance of taking the White House and the Senate with so many Democratic seats up for grabs, Rosenthal said. “In politics time makes a difference and one year later I think the Democrats are better situated than they would have believed a year ago.”
Rosenthal said Obama has been one of the rare presidents who has made and kept promises to Indian country. He attributed Obama’s commitment to Indian county in part because he traveled extensively in Indian country during the primary race against Hillary Clinton in 2008. “He visited the reservations and he went to the Great Plains and he was in Montana and in Crow country and I think he made a real connection during his travels and those travels had a big impact on him about what Indian country was all about,” Rosenthal said.
Another reason for Obama’s success in Indian country is his selection of senior staff members who are familiar with and have worked in Indian country and have been at the forefront of some of the Indian country battles waged in Congress over the years, Rosenthal said. “So when the president had these advisors around him, naturally Indian country was given a seat at the table.” Obama also kept his promise to appoint a Native American to a senior policy position by appointing Kim Teehee to the Domestic Policy Council. Teehee went to all the agencies and made sure that Indian country issues were considered and addressed, Rosenthal said. He cited Obama’s several accomplishments: the “unprecedented“ White House summits with tribal leaders; his emphasis on the government-to-government relationship and policy requiring consultation with the tribes; the $3 billion of stimulus package funds that went to Indian country for education, housing, energy and other developments; the Affordable Care Act that permanently re-authorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act; the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act.
Importantly, Obama’s Interior Department has taken a lot of land into trust, Rosenthal said. The Obama administration has resolved a number of longstanding “thorny” lawsuits included the Cobell trust and the Osage land rights actions, Rosenthal pointed out. And Obama’s budgets regarding Indian country “have been tremendous in very difficult economic times. This administration has stood up and said, ‘We need to protect the Indian budget, it’s a treaty obligation we have with the tribes…. So I think when we ask are you better off than you were four years ago the answer in Indian country is undeniably yes,” Rosenthal said.
When it was Tahsuda’s time to talk, he turned to Rosenthal and joked, “I’m actually almost convinced. Good sales pitch!” In comparison to Obama’s accomplishments predictions about a Romney administration were necessarily speculative. Tahsuda said it’s difficult to predict what a Romney administration would put forward as broad policy measures for Indian country. “Unfortunately being from Massachusetts the governor doesn’t have a long history (with Indian nations) and when he was the governor of Massachusetts I don’t believe they had any federally recognized tribes,” Tahsuda said. [Editor: Romney was governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) was federally acknowledged in 1987.] Looking to the past may not provide any insights into a potential Romney administration, Tahsuda said. “I think it’s probably more helpful to think about what have been large Republican policy positions in the past. I’ve had the good fortune to speak with the governor and it seems pretty clear to me that he’s well aware of the long Republican history and the good policy that’s come out of previous Republican administrations going back to Richard Nixon and is very supportive of these positions,” particularly self governance and turning over more authority to tribes, Tahsuda said.
Romney would likely support the development of natural resources in Indian country, not only gas and oil but also renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power, Tahsuda said. “He’s had some research showing him of the difficulties some tribes have had in dealing with the bureaucracy in trying to get development projects done on the reservations.” Romney would also be interested in improving the bureaucracy at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Tahsuda commended the Obama administration “on the level of consultation. It really is impressive. Some might say they consulted in order to learn how to consult. Hopefully, in the next four years they actually may be able to act on that consultation.” Tahsuda suggested that the Obama administration has modeled effective policies and procedures for a potential Romney presidency. “I think a new administration would have learned from the Obama administration about a commitment to consultations and high level policy personnel and I think that would be an important lesson learned,” Tahsuda said.
As for policies on Indian gaming, traditionally the Republicans have not welcomed it with open arms, Tahsuda said. As for Internet gaming, “Gov. Romney has not expressed his own policy on that but the Republican views Internet gaming as an expansion of gaming and they don’t support an expansion to gaming,” Tahsuda said. The Republicans have talked about rescinding a Department of Justice opinion issued last year that opened online betting to poker and lotteries, prohibiting only sporting events and contests, but that’s not likely to happen quickly. “It took some acrobatics to get to this opinion and would probably take more acrobatics to reverse it.”
There was a lot of agreement between the two Washington insiders. Both men agreed that it is essential for Indian country to have bipartisan support in Washington. Regardless of who wins the White House, it will be important to appoint judges at various levels, including the Supreme Court, who are knowledgeable about Indian law and Indian country, they said. “Self government is always a huge part of it. I would like to see whoever is president make a really good commitment to reinvigorate self governance,” Tahsuda said. “I think we all know that’s been the true success story over the past three decades. That’s key if we’re going to take another step forward.”
The presidential race may hinge on how the swing state of Ohio votes. “If Obama wins Ohio, the math becomes very difficult for Romney,” Tahsuda said. But a good performance by Romney at the first debate could “change the trajectory of this race,” he said.
But with some polls showing a narrow gap between the two candidates and so many voters still undecided, it’s difficult to predict who will be in the White House in January. “In some ways these races have lives of their own,” Tahsuda said.