No time like the present

Andy Matthews

For the nearly 150 years since its Civil War-inspired inception, Nevada has played the unfortunate role of the unloved, unappreciated and oft-abused step-child of the republic.

The most palpable example of abuse rests in the fact that nearly 90 percent of the land within Nevada’s borders is owned or controlled by the federal government, the result of an 1864 deal that granted Nevada statehood in exchange for turning most of its land over to the feds.

A forthcoming study by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, conducted by Charles F. Barr, describes how Washington failed to make good on its promise to sell back the land after the war, and how Nevada ever since has faced a land shortage that hinders development and causes burdensome spikes in the cost of living.

The reason this injustice has been allowed to perpetuate is that the Silver State’s relatively miniscule population – and thus its low electoral vote count – has always made it ripe for abuse by a federal government eager to exploit its natural resources absent any real threat of political backlash. Nevada always has been irrelevant politically, so what reason has Washington ever had to pay attention to its concerns?

But a series of recent developments have finally raised hope that Nevada might be able to begin to gain some clout.

Like much of the southwestern United States, Nevada’s population is growing at breakneck speed, consistently ranking the Silver State at or near the top of the list of the nation’s fastest-growing states.

A more populous Nevada will mean more representation in Congress and, thus, more electoral votes to offer every four years. The more valuable Nevada becomes to presidential candidates, the more attention is likely to be paid to its concerns. And because Nevada is a “swing state” – President Bush carried it twice by narrow margins, as did President Clinton – neither party will likely be able to take it for granted in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the southwestern bloc of Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado is quickly becoming as significant a regional battleground as the Great Lakes cluster of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In addition, the decisions of both the state’s Republican and Democratic parties to move up the date of their 2008 presidential caucuses will ensure that those seeking the nation’s top office – and the media horde that covers them – will spend plenty of time here in the coming months.

And a third development – perhaps the one with the most potential to benefit Nevada – is one that Barr makes a point of mentioning in his study. The 2004 electoral demise of South Dakota’s Tom Daschle, then the top Democrat in the Senate, elevated Nevada’s Harry Reid to the position of Senate minority leader. That allowed Reid to then become the top figure in the entire U.S. Senate when the Democrats captured control of that chamber in the 2006 elections.

Reid’s ascendancy, the early caucuses and Nevada’s emergence as an increasingly crucial “swing state” would seem to represent a celestial alignment positioning the Silver State well to at last reclaim much of its lost heritage. Unfortunately, the man best positioned to lead this effort appears, at least so far, to be squandering the opportunity.

Under Reid – and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – Congress has seen its public approval levels sink to all-time lows. The American people increasingly see Congress as an ineffective body incapable of – or even disinterested in – getting anything done, more consumed with passing non-binding resolutions and staging symbolic slumber parties than with producing any meaningful legislation.

Reid is often the prime target of the public’s ire. And the more unserious and impotent Reid appears, the worse for Nevada and Nevadans, whose chances of seeing any real improvement in their situation – in terms of access to land or otherwise – rest with the effectiveness, perceived and real, of their representatives in Washington.

It ought to concern Nevadans, then, as members of the media these days line up to take their whacks at our senior senator, who is quickly becoming a tragicomic figure.

The Washington Post’ s widely respected David Broder noted that “Reid is assuredly not a man who misses many opportunities to put his foot in his mouth.” Columnist George Will called him the Senate's “resident Uriah Heep,” a reference to the character from Dickens’ David Copperfield known for his insincere exhibitions of humility. And those observations came before the slumber party.

The danger is that as Nevada tries to capitalize on its new and higher profile, its most prominent national representative is increasingly being identified with ineffectiveness, insincerity and irrelevance.

Observed Broder, as he reviewed Reid’s performance: “Democrats deserve better, and the country needs more.”

The same holds true in the Silver State.

Much is at stake, and Nevadans deserve better.

Andy Matthews is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.