Why Cliven Bundy’s Gaffe Matters: His Cause Needed a Hero

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 24 2014 1:43 PM

Why Cliven Bundy’s Gaffe Matters: His Cause Needed a Hero

My colleague Jamelle Bouie is doing a fantastic job slicing through the congealed layers of derp around Cliven Bundy's slavery gaffe. The Nevada rancher is doing himself zero favors, going on friendly radio shows and insisting that the media is lying about what he said. (There's video.) Conservatives are revisiting old nostrums about the Democrats' "double standard" on race. Hey, how come Harry Reid can say the word "negro" but Cliven Bundy can't? And so on. 

Why does any of this matter? Because Bundy had the potential to become a galvanizing figure for a cause that's hard to get people excited about. For a very long time, conservatives have been campaigning to take back federal lands, give them to the states, and let businesses or farms—or whatever—develop them. Having spent many hours inside the air-conditioned ballrooms of conservative conferences like AFP's "Defending the American Dream Summit," I've seen presentations about the government's choke-hold on usable land. Other reporters, who've tracked legislation in Western states, have watched Arizona and Utah pass bills demanding the feds turn over tens of millions of acres to the states.

The problem, as Jessica Goad and Tom Kenworthy noted, was that Western voters didn't care.* By at least a 2–1 margin in a recent Colorado College State of the Rockies survey, they did not think "having too much public land" was a problem. Enter Cliven Bundy. His years-long battle with the feds came to a head last month, and conservatives from Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to likely next governor of Texas Greg Abbott rallied to him. As liberal Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva noted in a letter to the Department of the Interior, it had been just one year since Bundy testified in favor of a Nevada land bill. The state, said Bundy, had "a moral claim upon the public land." No one cared then, but all of a sudden, Bundy had allies. Even GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who does not pick losers, was stirring the pot.

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Note the wording—"American land," the feds taking something away from Americans by claiming it for the public. Progressives like Grijalva worried that conservatives were fomenting a "new Sagebrush rebellion," a successor to the 1970s rebellion against the Department of the Interior.

And then Bundy popped off about slavery. Paul has already denounced his comments; other conservatives are debating publicly whether to stand with Bundy against the smear-happy MSM, or to bail on him. If you're one of those legislators who saw, finally, a populist moment coming for your land soveriegnty bill, you may have just lost your most visible champion.

*Correction, April 24, 2014: This post originally misspelled Jessica Goad's last name.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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