Writings and observations

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

Here’s where members of Congress tend to get a bad rap: When congressional recesses are described as vacations, weeks when the officials can head off to the Caribbean and laze around. At times like the current congressional recess, which this year like most includes the month of August.

A few of them do treat it as time off, but most – while maybe taking a break here or there – use much of the time to do work, sometimes in Washington but often spending time back in the home state or district.

What exactly they do varies according to the person, and their priorities.

Last week Senator Mike Crapo released his recess schedule, and it shows that from August 11 to 28, which takes in most of the recess period, he will be visiting places and groups all over Idaho. On August 11 he will appear at two awards ceremonies and speak at the Financial Industry Authority Investor Forum. At McCall two days later he “discusses issues with Valley County Commissioners, Payette National Forest Supervisor’s Office” and in the afternoon “Tours Schweitzer Engineering Laboratory’s recent facility expansion” at Lewiston. The next day he goes to Orofino to speak with the county commissioners and the chamber of commerce; the day after, he’s back in Lewiston for a groundbreaking on a water project.

And so on. On the 27th he has two events in Twin Falls, both meeting with veterans groups, and on the 28th two in Pocatello, presenting an award to a veteran and addressing an economic symposium.

That’s a lot better than just vacationing during a recess, certainly, and not too different from what Idaho’s congressional delegation often does. But it is a little limiting. If you’re a economic developer or an executive of a prosperous business, or a veteran, or a local government official, your chances of getting face time with the senator aren’t bad. It’s not a bad thing that they get the opportunity. The point is, not many other Idahoans do.

Let me digress, for a moment, over to Oregon’s 4th congressional district (the southwest part of the state), where veteran Representative Peter DeFazio is preparing for his recess. And he really needs some preparation.

Like other members of Congress, he’ll be meeting with bunches of people and groups back home during the recess. But the core of his time will be spent at town halls, open meetings where people in the community are invited to ask questions of the representative, or give him a piece of their mind. (As they sometimes do; political opponents periodically show up and get involved.) Usually these run around an hour and a half each.

He will hold town hall meetings in Reedsport, Bandon, Gold Beach, Brookings, and Port Orford.

And then in Coos Bay, North Bend (this one mainly on veterans), Springfield, Cottage Grove, and Grants Pass.

And after that in Myrtle Creek, Roseburg, Lebanon, and Albany (the latter mainly on veterans).

And, in his last few days before the recess ends, in Corvallis, Florence, Veneta and two in Eugene.

DeFazio isn’t the only member of Congress to run this kind of regime on their time away from D.C. But he certainly does get exposure to a wide range of his constituents.

The practice could use some expansion in places such as Idaho.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

Draw no wild predictions of massive upsets into this, but three statewide offices below the top level – which would mean governor and Congress – have developed some new dynamics this year. They’re different enough that, three months out from the general election, there’s at least some sense of unpredictability about them.

The default prediction in Idaho when an office has a partisan label (as federal, state and county offices mostly do) is, simply, the Republican wins. It’s a reasonable standard-issue answer in not all but most cases.

Noted here, three that don’t necessarily reverse that, but ought to give prognosticators pause.

One, the most easily explained, is superintendent of public instruction, held for the last two terms by Republican Tom Luna. The two terms before that, however, it was held by Democrat Marilyn Howard, the Democrat most recently (12 years ago) elected statewide. When she retired in 2006, after having beaten Luna four years earlier, the Democratic nominee was Jana Jones, who was Howard’s chief deputy. Jones nearly beat Luna, in one of the closer elections in Idaho that year. This year, she is running again, and is well-funded and highly active.

Her Republican opponent, Sherri Ybarra, has appeal and good classroom cred, but she was a surprise winner in a deeply split primary, and to date still hasn’t been very visible or (visibly) organized. She contrasts with the highly-organized and campaign-honed Luna of 2006. This may change, and if as is possible she runs a solid campaign, the Republican label could carry her through. Right now, it’s hard to know, and Jones is not badly positioned.

State Treasurer Ron Crane has had a series of bad headlines this season about his management of the office (and the finances it generates), the sort of thing elected officials usually find . . . unhelpful. He has a strongly aggressive Democratic opponent in Deborah Silver, a Twin Falls CPA who has been working hard and doing just about everything she can to keep those headlines in view and discuss them in detail.

How much has this actually been hurting Crane, who has been elected to the job four times, has been mostly uncontroversial over the last 16 years and is one of the major Republicans in the state not caught up in the party’s internal warfare? Crane himself has hinted at some concern by releasing counter statements, like one about earning a billion dollars for the state over his tenure. Is it a signal that Silver, and the headlines, are beginning to punch through?

A non-incumbent counterpart to that one would be in the secretary of state’s race, where popular incumbent Ben Ysursa is retiring. Ysursa had a replacement preference in the Republican primary and pitched a strong endorsement, but in a deeply split primary the Republican voters instead chose former House Speaker Lawerence Denney. Denney has been highly controversial, was in the middle of a string of intra-party fights over the years, has been accused of favoritism and worse, and racked up bum headlines and editorials by the score over the years of his speakership.

His Democratic opponent is first-term Representative Holli Woodings, who has drawn at least some Republican support (notably from former Representative Leon Smith), and has a case to make against Denney. So far, she’s been less aggressive than Silver. This race, though, chiefly involves the question: Are Denney’s controversies enough to cause Idaho voters to move past their usual Republican preference?

We have yet to see how this plays out; call it an unanswered question.

As with the other two. Which means, in these three races alone, there’s a little more interest in Idaho’s general election than in most recent cycles in the Gem State.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

Annually, newspapers around the country list the top local and regional news stories of the year, lists often begging the difference between “big news” and “actually important.” Sometimes the two overlap; often, they don’t.

The Idaho Statesman at Boise, on occasion of its 150th anniversary since its first edition, has this year run a series of articles about the top stories in its pages during that century and a half. They’ve been good reading, useful for anyone who wants to understand a little more about the sweep of Idaho history. They only occasionally reflect what was perceived as big news at the time.

Mostly, you can’t blame the paper for that. One article for example was about the opening of the first store Joe Albertson launched, at Boise, in 1939. Back in the day it made the paper in a brief notice on page 21 (about what the opening of a new grocery store might, were it lucky, get today). Who could have known what would blossom, decades later, from that one little store?

It’s an example of why newspapers offer just a first draft of history; time makes many events look different in hindsight.

Or sometimes not, at least to many people. Last week the Statesman was promoting selections, made by its readers (not the editors), of choices for the biggest story in Idaho’s (or, the Statesman’s) history, and released the identity of the final four.

One, dating to 1890, is understandable both as an event and as a matter of significance: The achievement of statehood. Not a terrible choice; if you bundle that in with adoption of the state constitution (though I wouldn’t), it was both a big deal at the time, much debated and much written about, and still significant with the passage of time.

Here are the other three:

The Teton Dam collapse in 1976.

The opening of the Boise Latter Day Saints temple in 1984.

Boise State University’s win in the 2007 Fiesta bowl.

Really? True, they all generated big Statesman headlines at the time. But did any of them fundamentally change Idaho? The Teton Dam did great local damage, but repairs happened quickly, and the reverberations have been subtle. The opening of the Boise LDS temple was personally significant to the local church faithful, but it had little effect on others. And a Boise State football victory? Really?

And is it significant that three of these four choices happened within the last 40 years? Is our sense of what came before really that thin?

A few years ago I co-wrote a book called Idaho 100 about the people who most influenced the direction of the Gem State. They included people like David Eliason Pierce, the miner whose gold discovery near Orofino set off the mining boom that led to creation of Idaho Territory, the founding of Boise and its nearby communities, and much more. There was Ira Perrine, whose push for water resource development led directly to the creation of what we know as the Magic Valley. And Joe Marshall, whose single-handed 1917 marketing of the Idaho potato gave the state its signature industry. Or Thomas Ricks, whose founding in 1883 of the city named for his family (Rexburg) was the most direct cause of the biggest religious-social development in Idaho history.

None of those made big headlines when they happened.

Remember the line from the 60s: “The revolution will not be televised”? Well, it might not make the paper, either. Or be much remembered.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

No community in Idaho would relish the loss of 21 jobs. Boise would not; Nampa would not. The east side of Seattle just lost more than 1,300 jobs at Microsoft, and certainly didn’t welcome that.

But Boise, Nampa and Seattle weather these losses, however unpleasant. The loss of just 21 jobs is more critical in some places than in others, as the people of Dubois could say emphatically.

Dubois is like one of those places the writer Dayton Duncan wrote of in his book Miles from Nowhere (1993), which was about the remote and small-population places of western America. Among Idaho communities, he happened to focus on Stanley and Yellow Pine.

His most striking instance, in a chapter called “Below the Irreducible Minimum,” was Loving County, Texas, population 107, and its one community, the seat of Mentone. It raises a question: When does a community become too small to remain a functioning community?

Clark, with a reported 867 residents (down from 1,022 in 2000), is Idaho’s least-populated county, and the 30th least-populated county in the United States. It’s a rugged place; many residents here head south in the winter. Among the country’s lowest-populated counties, it has the highest percentage of residents born in a foreign country – presumably, many reliant on agricultural work. The Census reports that Clark has 18 non-farm businesses employing 83 people.

Aside from farm employment ad local government, the largest employer in the county may be the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, located a few miles north of Dubois but managing operations scattered around the Clark County area. Its job, simply, is to research sheep: Its website lists one goal as “an understanding of the interactions between sheep and the environments in which they are produced that can be used to improve sheep production systems and ensure the sustainability of grazing land ecosystems.”

It also says, “Currently, there are 21permanent, full-time employees at the USSES. In addition, the USSES has one postdoctoral fellow. Other employees include high school interns, undergraduate interns, graduate students, and intermittent general duty employees.”

There aren’t a lot of good-paying jobs in Clark, and those at the Sheep Experimental Station near Dubois are among the few. Take those jobs, those families, and the money they circulate in the community, out of the picture, and local businesses and local governments will find a critical piece of their income has vanished. Is that enough to trip an economic sequence that could seriously damage Dubois and Clark County? It might be.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture several weeks ago sent out a notice that it was considering shutting down the sheep station. For now at least, that won’t happen. Representative Mike Simpson, going to bat for one his district’s counties, made the case in Congress for retaining it, and appears to have pulled in enough support in the House to persuade USDA to back off, at least for a while.

The incident overall should come as a scary moment for Clark County, though. In the small counties it wouldn’t take much of a loss to start flirting with the concept of an irreducible minimum.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

For a while after he became governor in 1977, John V. Evans became known among some Idaho political writers as the Rodney Dangerfield of governors: He couldn’t get no respect – and that was the headline of a column at the time.

Anecdotes flew around. He was the lieutenant governor who put gas in his car tank, forgot his wallet at home, and promised the attendant he would run right back and get it and pay. Not good enough: The lieutenant governor had to leave his watch as collateral. (Evans had a good enough sense of humor that none of this seemed to bother him.)

As governor, there was an optics issue too. He took the office not by election but by elevation, after the charismatic Cecil Andrus had been named interior secretary. Evans had a lot to live up to, and he lacked Andrus’ magnetism.

But by the time of Evans’ passing this week, perspectives changed – a lot. He gets a good deal of respect now and for good reason.

John Evans held office during one of Idaho’s tougher economic periods, and when much of the bigger picture of Idaho politics, on partisan, social and philosophical levels, was turning against him. He still won election to the job twice, the second time over a man (Phil Batt) who more than a decade later did become governor; he came very close to winning a race for the U.S. Senate. (All that followed a closely contested run for lieutenant governor in 1974.)

Evans could fairly be considered one of Idaho’s strongest governors. He was a highly skilled politician (first elected to the state Senate in the Republican year of 1952 from Republican Oneida County), a far better campaigner than many people credited him for, and he could be a partisan leader when occasion arose. Republicans long remembered how many previous governors would simply sign a veto of legislation, but Evans brought out a big red veto stamp to make his point.

My memories of his time in office come from another angle: Alongside the self-confidence (which any successful politician must have) was an evidently genuine humility and kindness. Few major public offices I have ever seen were as open as his; the door of his office was nearly always open, allowing for inquiring reporters or anyone else to see exactly what the governor was up to at any given moment.

One day I asked to spend a day with the governor, from breakfast until he got home from work. That sort of story isn’t totally unique, but what was unusual was this: I wasn’t kicked out of anything, any meetings or deliberations at all, all day. That was not the kind of openness you saw in just about anyone else’s administration.

When he left the governor’s office, he did something else unusual. He didn’t retire or work as a lobbyist or do many of the things you usually expect ex-governors to do. Instead, he moved to Burley and took over the family business – the D.L. Evans Bank – and over the years exploded it from a small, reasonably successful business to Idaho’s largest locally-owned bank, with rapid growth year over year. It grew even more just a week ago when it swallowed another Idaho banking operation. After years as one of Idaho’s most successful political leaders, he worked his way up to become one of its top business leaders as well.

One more word, speaking as a publisher: John Evans is the only governor in the long reach from Len Jordan to Phil Batt whose story hasn’t been told in biography or memoir. Someone should get about it, soon. It would make a good story.

Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor, author of The Idaho Political Field Guide, edits the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

This deep red state would not exist but for a Democratic president and a Democratic Idaho governor.
It might have been shaped like a square or a rectangle, the way most other western states are, or nearly are; in fact when Idaho Territory was first created in 1863, it was: It then included what is now Montana and most of Wyoming, which sounds ridiculously large but still is only a little larger than Texas. Montana and Wyoming were sloughed off after about a year.

What was left of Idaho did not look like promising state material. In some ways, the Nevada experience soured many people on remote, oddly-shaped and lightly populated states. Nevada had been admitted in a rush during the Civil War, after which its mining industry went crash and the state largely depopulated; it was so poorly run as to be called a “rotten borough.” Idaho as a territory was a little better than that after its first decade or so, but still more a collection of pieces than a logically coherent entity. The mountains in the center seemed to bar direct transportation and communication across its farther reaches, and even the relatively flat desert in the south was forbidding for travelers between its growing eastern and western reaches, where farming was taking hold. (The hospitable Magic Valley was still in the future.)
And the northern part of the state, which never got over losing the territorial capital, felt little connection to the south. Economically, socially, politically, the pieces were distinct.

So plans for splitting Idaho into pieces started early, and continued up to the advent of statehood.

It almost happened. The closest call came in the 1880s.

Nevada was still struggling, and among the ideas circulating there was a territorial expansion. It had few options. California and Oregon already were states, and unlikely to give up territory. Utah to the east was nearing statehood itself, but the Mormon identity of the area was holding it back in Congress; Nevada would never get approval for that annexation. But southwest Idaho was gaining in population and developing a stable economy. From Nevada’s point of view, it looked scrumptious.
Washington territory was nearing statehood as well, and like other territories found that larger population bases always helped the case in Congress. Northern Idaho once had been part of Washington Territory, and even then Spokane was something a regional economic base. Why not a reunion?
And if those pieces were gone, the chances for Utah statehood would be improved if it gobbled eastern Idaho.

Does this sound implausible? Here’s some history: A bill to split Idaho among its neighbors in just this way (with Nevada getting most or all of southern Idaho) actually passed Congress in 1887 (when Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democrats the House), and only the signature of Democratic President Grover Cleveland was needed to redraw the map and eliminate Idaho.

There’s some evidence Cleveland was leaning toward signing the (bipartisan) bill. He was dissuaded by the man he had appointed as Idaho’s territorial governor, Edward Stevenson, who like Cleveland hailed from New York and was a member of its leading political families. (He was a relative of two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.) Cleveland pocket-vetoed the bill.

Idaho unionists counterattacked by trying (unsuccessfully) to annex western Montana.

Three years later Idaho was admitted as a state.

History does take its twists, a point to ponder as Idaho this month reaches its 124th year as a state.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

Several weeks ago Marc Johnson, who has been a Boise consultant, press secretary and journalist, wrote a piece of a blog post that has been sticking in my mind these last couple of weeks. It may stick in yours.

The key sentence in it says this: “The near total history of Democratic success in Idaho, dating back to at least Frank Church’s first election in 1956, has its foundation in Republican mistakes.”

He went on to cite a few examples, but many more are available. Let’s recap, starting with Church, the highly capable campaigner who likely would not have won his first Senate race in 1956 but for the weaknesses of incumbent Republican Herman Welker. Welker had been Senator Joe McCarthy’s closest Senate ally, and McCarthy was by 1956 in national disgrace. Coupled with that, Idahoans were seeing Welker had some kind of serious but unacknowledged physical problem that was causing him to behave erratically; it was widely assumed to be alcoholism but was in fact a brain tumor, which killed him not long after the election.

In 1960, Democrat Ralph Harding was able to beat Republican Representative Hamer Budge after Budge had become too enamored of his committee assignments and lost track of his district.

A decade later, Democrat Cecil Andrus thinly beat incumbent Republican Governor Don Samuelson after a long series of small but embarrassing glitches and an overall weak governorship.

In 1984, it took a string of felony convictions to narrowly remove Republican Representative George Hansen in favor of Democrat Richard Stallings.

In 1990, Republican legislators pushed too far for the state’s preference (at the time at least) on abortion legislation, and Democrats did uncommonly well that year, the last time to date that’s been true. That also happened to be the last time Republicans were as internally divided as they are now, though the emotions didn’t run nearly so hot then.

In 1998, Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Anne Fox was the subject of long strings of negative headlines and criticism, and she lost to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who ran as a capable and low key alternative.

A string of mistakes too in the following decade happened in the single term of Representative Bill Sali, who lost in 2008 to Democrat Walt Minnick.

Taken together, these instances pretty much account for substantial Democratic Idaho wins in the last few decades. A common denominator has been a serious flaw, or flaws, on the Republican side – and a Democratic alternative in place to take advantage when those emerged. (The smooth, functional and harmonious Democratic convention last week at the least gives the impression of a batch of candidates who plausibly could take such advantage.)

Which brings us up to this year, and the question of the moment: Do the Idaho Republicans’ ongoing round of internal battles, some of which have resulted in internationally embarrassing viral moments, have the potential to knock out Republican candidates in this year’s general election? And if so, which?

From here, the jury’s still out.

But I suspect Johnson might agree that the question has become worth asking.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

The Idaho Republican convention’s closing hours in Moscow last weekend were so unusual and so conflicted that they’ve taken on a character of their own – a poison pill of sorts for Idaho’s dominant political party, an event so embarrassing that, in some views, it might cost the party control of state offices.

Let’s step back just a bit.

Will the chaos convention in and of itself change much in Idaho politics? Probably not. Even amid all the headlines, most Idaho voters likely are only vaguely aware that a convention was held, and far fewer could explain to you just what happened there. So what if they failed to elect (in the normal way at least) a chair or adopt a platform? Outside of people really active in Idaho politics, who would notice? When’s the last time either of those things elicited a lot of discussion two weeks after the event?

Short term, the party has a mess in front of it – disagreement even about whether it has a chair and officers in place. Meetings last week didn’t seem to go much better than the convention did. Some of that may be resolved in the next few weeks in meetings various party people are trying to set up; or those efforts could collapse as well.

Still, as a one-shot event, this and the botched convention was not a big deal in the broad reach of Idaho politics. It will pass.

That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

It (and the ongoing conflict) could turn off some party workers and volunteers who, out of anger or disgust, won’t be going out there and working the way they usually do. That could hurt the party in the case of races which are otherwise close.

But there’s also something bigger.

Much of modern politics is driven by a narrative – a story of people, parties and issues, what they mean and how they fit into the story of individual lives. In the news, aberrations from those established narratives tend to fade. When news erupts that reinforces a narrative, it tends to strengthen the power of the story. It makes it more believable and harder to dismiss.

Earlier this year, we saw an unusual and maybe unprecedented split of Idaho Republicans into two distinct sides – slates of candidates competing ferociously in the primary election. The rhetoric was often strong, sometimes hyperbolic, well beyond what you usually hear from intra-party fights.

Toward the end of that campaign, Idaho got national attention for its Republican gubernatorial debate which featured two fringe candidates who got much more attention than the two mainstream candidates; and who spoke (in effect) of being on a mission from God and the like.

Now, the same party’s state convention falls apart because anger and disputes flourish, compromise vanishes, and party leaders cannot cooperate well enough to conduct basic organizational business.

These are only three recent examples – if you’ve been watching, you can come up with many more – of a long-building narrative about who and what Idaho Republicans are all about, and what is the meaning of Republican governance in Idaho. Each day with another tale of anger and non-cooperation will add to the list.

Take these pieces together, and what sort of a narrative about Idaho Republicans are voters constructing as they consider politics in their state? What does this narrative tell us about who and what they are?

This is how political narratives are made. And elections really do rise and fall on the basis of them.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

Next week Idaho Democrats will follow Idaho Republicans in holding their convention at Moscow. There’s much they could usefully talk about – but probably won’t.

The party has nominees in place for most major offices and a passable number below, and the convention will discuss their virtues. Also, the shortcomings, especially recent ones, of the Republicans who have been in near-total control of the state government for the last two decades. And the policy differences between the parties.

That is what Idaho Democrats, like Republicans, have done every two years during these last 20.

And here’s the record from 1994 to now. Democrats have lost the last five gubernatorial elections, getting a peak percentage of the vote in 2006 (44.1%) – in other words, not close. That’s better than the Senate races during that time, when they peaked at 34.1% (in 2008).

The most telling statistic may be legislative. In 1994 Republicans won the state Senate 27-8, and the House 57-13. After the 2012 election, they won the Senate 28-7, and the House 57-13. Through the years in between, those numbers have hardly changed. Good candidates, bad candidates, better or worse campaigns and funding, varied message strategies – little of it seems to have mattered.

In two decades of Idaho politics, we have seen successive presidencies, economic ups and downs, people coming and going, this candidate and then that arising, periodic scandals and mishaps, changes in content and intensity of ideology, demographic changes, terrific candidates, fringe candidates, issues dominating discussion then fading and then replaced by others. Through it all, Idaho partisan politics has not budged. The needle has not moved.

The politics of Idaho seem frozen, glacier-like, except for moving even slower than that.

But what about the major-office wins by Democrats for superintendent of public instruction (1998, 2002) and the U.S. House (1st district, 2008)? Those openings happened on occasion of major Republican mess-ups – in other words, when Republicans errantly left the door wide open. That doesn’t happen a lot.

Depending on who you are, this may be okay. Many Idahoans regularly vote for Republicans, and – even putting aside what the candidates say or don’t say in campaigns – what those Republican candidates deliver cannot come as much of a surprise, good or bad, after all this time.

If you’re a Democrat, or an independent simply not on board with the agenda of the last 20 years, the frustration has to be great. Democrats run candidates both good (sometimes very good) and less so, run campaigns well and less so, have surprisingly often raised enough money to get their message out, and in many instances done what conventional wisdom says candidates and parties ought to do. Earlier in Idaho history that might have resulted in a middling number of wins. Not in the last 20 years.

The problem for Idaho Democrats lies outside the names of their candidates and even the skill and energy of their campaigns. It relates to broader attitudes and conditions in Idaho. Their problem is solvable if Idahoans aren’t as satisfied with their government as their voting patterns seem to suggest, which as a proposition doesn’t seem a reach.

Idaho Democrats meeting at Moscow need to talk about what’s holding them back – what keeps a large segment of Idaho voters from crossing over and giving their stronger candidates a chance (as once was the case), and what’s keeping many prospective voters for Democrats from participating at all (which demonstrably seems to be the case).

A bigger subject than what their candidates do in the next four months.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

We hate unresolved questions. And we hate not knowing for sure what to think about something. Good? Bad? We want to know where to slot it.

The Bergdahl case probably will gnaw at a lot of people for quite a while. We aren’t completely sure what to make of him, or what we should have done – or should do now – about him. War, messy and unpredictable beast it is, has a way of producing irritating loose ends like Bergdahl.

Go back a year, and what did we know? That U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whose home town was Hailey, had been held by the Taliban for four years. On June 20 last year, Idaho’s congressional delegation issued a joint statement on the possibility of a prisoner exchange: “Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Bowe Bergdahl and his family. His safe return has always been of the utmost importance to us, and his well-being is something we raise with senior administration officials whenever possible.”

Why would the delegation have said anything much different than that “his safe return had always been of the utmost importance to us”? He and his family were, among other things, United States citizens and constituents.

Such quotes have been a constant from the beginning. In July 2009: “With the Pentagon now confirming his identity, we add our thoughts and prayers with others for his reunion with family, friends and Army colleagues. Private Bergdahl represents Idaho and his nation courageously.”

On April 8 this year, Senator Mike Crapo, in an interview with KBOI-TV, reported on a trip to Afghanistan: “And with every one of those meetings at highest levels, I raised the issue of Bowe Bergdahl. I’m pleased to report that not only had they heard of him, they were co-ordinating among themselves. It is a priority for them.” But he also suggested, based on what he’d heard, the idea of extracting him forcibly, rather than negotiating a release, was not realistic.

These recitations aren’t gotchas; to the contrary, they’re what most people would expect any congressional delegation to say. That’s true even with this: Reports that Bergdahl may have walked away from his post, may have deserted, have surfaced and flown around the Internet for a long time. (“May” is a key word here: This is a subject hotly debated, not yet resolved.) Anyone who has followed the Bergdahl case even peripherally has not been surprised to see them surface again now.

And the idea of trading Bergdahl rather than obtaining him in some other way, as the statements from Crapo and others make clear, is nothing new either.

The Idaho delegation, having visited all this over the years, may be more sensitized to the gray areas than most people, walking a line involving party loyalty but also other considerations. Compared to many in Congress and certainly to the cable news blatherers, they have couched their language cautiously and tamped rhetorical fireworks.

Representative Raul Labrador on KBOI radio last week, for example: “I’m a little bit disturbed by some of the Republicans out there who keep saying this has never happened before. That is not entirely true. If you look historically, at the end of any conflict, you have a swap of prisoners, and that happens. Usually our side will release people that are less than desirable in order to get some of our people back in these swaps. So I would suggest that anybody who’s being hyper-critical about this, they should look at the history. This has happened before.”

We have been here before, all right, in this discomfort zone, where messes get sorted out one deliberate step at a time. Welcome to one of the realities of war.

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Idaho Idaho column