An energy oasis in the political desert
The presidential candidate stood on the back of the train in Helper, Utah, and declared: "The fuel for our machine age economy will be absolutely dependent at some time or other upon this great West."
The candidate was Harry Truman; the year, 1948. Besides being prophetic, the speech was significant because it was the last time any major presidential candidate visited Helper on the campaign trail. This campaign season, even Mitt Romney, Utah's favorite presidential hopeful, has not gone anywhere near Helper - or Price, or Green River, or 90 percent of the rest of rural Utah.
Just a year and a half ago, there was a glimmer of hope that Truman-style campaign visits would return to the West. With Democrats gaining ground in Republican strongholds, the West has become a swing region, and it got a collective voice in the nominating process when five of its states agreed to hold caucuses or primaries on Feb. 5. The Democrats moved their Nevada caucus to the front end of the nominating calendar, and the Republicans moved Wyoming's to the beginning of theirs. All of these factors combined, it seemed, would force the candidates to spend more time in the region addressing its particular issues. Or, at the very least, they'd start wearing jeans, cowboy hats and bolo ties.
Things haven't turned out that way. Romney's only visited Utah seven times this year, in spite of the fact that he has raised millions in the state. He and the other 16 candidates have visited Iowa six times as often as they've visited the entire Interior West. Even when the candidates do land on the rural West's runways, they rarely talk about the region's specific issues.
In other words, we're still campaign flyover country. But that doesn't diminish the West's significance in the coming election - this is swing-region battlefield territory. Since the candidates aren't doing much to court the region's voters, High Country News Senior Editor Ray Ring, in this issue's cover story, has offered his assistance. He does so by writing the kind of speech we believe the West needs to hear.
Like Truman's spiel 60 years ago, Ring's dream campaign speech focuses on the vast energy resources the West provides to the nation. Truman encouraged the development of fossil fuels, which have powered American TVs and toasters while stoking the West's economies and ravaging its landscapes. Ring's ideal candidate would also encourage energy development in the West, but of a different sort.
Ring's speech launches HCN's political coverage for 2008. We won't deluge you with every detail of the ongoing horse race; there's plenty of that to go around already. Rather, the pages of the magazine and the Winning the West section of hcn.org will provide insightful coverage, commentary and analysis of the Western political scene as a whole.
Meanwhile, we'll be watching to see if any of the candidates ever wakes up to the West. Who knows, we might even get to hear a speech like Ring's delivered from the back of a train, in some small town among the mountains and the valleys and the coalmines and the drill rigs of the West.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.