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Republicans scrambling to keep the West

George W. Bush is playing with fire.

His recent fly-over of the Squires Peak fire in Oregon, followed by a carefully choreographed tour and speech, had all the essential trappings of raw, transparent politics. The presidential visit was more about dousing the political fires that threaten his party in the West than it was about preventing wildfires.

Bush watchers have come to realize that he has an obsession with political machinations. This President has outdone even Bill Clinton in both the number of campaign fundraising trips he has taken during his first two years, raising record amounts of political cash. In matters of critical public policy, Bush has readily thrown overboard his own publicly stated policy preferences to simply satisfy political pressures. On both federal subsidy payments to farmers and tariffs to shore up the domestic steel industry, Bush abandoned his own proclamations of support for free market philosophy and he did it to gain favor with two relatively important segments of his potential political constituency. 

George Bush's recent unexpected visit to fire country in Oregon was an obvious effort to shore up his suddenly brittle western political underpinnings. With only two months to go before this fall's election, the President and his party are facing a sudden and wholly unexpected political downturn in the West. Everywhere he looks throughout the Rocky Mountain states and along the heavily populated west coast he sees political trouble looming. 

For Republicans, accustomed to almost two decades of high times in the West, the signs of trouble are broad and deep. On the west coast, Bush's candidate for governor of California, Richard Riordan, lost the primary and the eventual Republican nominee, Bill Simon, has now slipped well behind his Democratic opponent the incumbent Governor Gray Davis. Failing to regain the Governor's office in California is the worst possible political news for Bush. The open seat for governor in Oregon also appears to be in the hands of the Democrat.

Congressional Democrats have been talking for weeks about their party's surprising upturn throughout the states of the Rocky Mountains. The late summer's political polls indicate that Democrats are likely to gain congressional seats in both of the newly created first and seventh districts in Arizona, are adding two winning districts in both Colorado and New Mexico along with one in Utah and are enjoying the possibility of an upset in an Idaho congressional race.

In South Dakota the lead, once held by Republican challenger John Thune, has now evaporated and the incumbent Democrat Tim Johnson is pulling ahead. Here in Montana, despite personal appeals by both Bush and Cheney, the Democrat Max Baucus, once listed by the Republicans as vulnerable, holds a surprisingly comfortable lead over his conservative Republican opponent.

As if these Rocky Mountain Democratic gains aren't trouble enough for the President and his party, they are also shackled with their unpopular decision to transport nuclear waste across the West and bury it in the Yucca Mountain site in Utah. This despite a last minute Cheney campaign promise that the administration would not support a slam dunk forcing of nuclear waste on Utah. The Presidential decision to permit a breathtaking 51,000 coal bed methane gas wells throughout the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana is gleefully welcomed by energy corporations but the fourth and fifth generation ranchers in the area, mostly conservatives, are looking around for new political pastures.

To add to the Republican's western political difficulties was the discovery, just prior to Bush's western visit, that his administration had "mislaid $215 million" intended for western wildfire management during the past two fire seasons. Westerners become understandably angry when we learn that hundreds of millions of dollars were lost and thus unspent during the past two historic fire seasons while our homes and property were jeopardized. 

All of this has combined to send the President and his party scrambling for a political antidote. Thus, the hastily arranged Bush visit and speech at the Oregon fire scene seemed oddly unfocused as a policy statement. It is, for example, entirely counter to the newly announced, thoughtful fire prevention plan put forward by the Western Governor's Association. That 10-year plan, called "Improving Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Health in the West," and signed by the western Governors in Phoenix on June 25th, was developed by our western governors in consensus with both industry and environmentalists. 

The Bush proposal is radically different from the governors' proposal in that it promotes the wholesale logging of large trees deep in the wild areas rather than logging and thinning near the urban interface. Additionally, the governors purposely decided, after many months of thoughtful consideration, that it was not necessary to dissolve environmental laws in order to conduct appropriate fire prevention operations. Bush proposes the very opposite.

The governors' reasonable approach, however, is at odds with Bush's political purposes. He knows that right now our western politics are as flammable as are our forests. Bush needs a scapegoat and that means environmentalists! Will it work? Perhaps. In the meantime, the controversy is threatening to cause serious policy divisions within the non-partisan Western Governors Association, whose newly elected chairperson is Montana governor Judy Martz.

Following the Bush visit to that fire scene and as if to put a political exclamation point on the trip, he "dropped in" on a campaign fundraising event for the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat. 

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Author info

Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

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Politics, forest fire, Rocky Mountain West

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