Oregon militants: Politicians see little gain in crowing over standoff


The occupation of a Harney County federal wildlife refuge by armed militants, which stretched into its fourth day Tuesday, has been a hot topic almost everywhere: social media, television and websites across the country.

Everywhere except the campaign trail. Or inside the nation's halls of power.

Presidential candidates, when asked, have either kept quiet on the standoff or offered terse condemnations of lawlessness. Gov. Kate Brown has declined to comment on the militants' tactics or motives. A spokesman for President Barack Obama called the affair a "local" matter in brief comments Monday — with the president avoiding the subject entirely when unveiling gun-control executive orders on Tuesday.

Only Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Harney County in Congress, has repeatedly spoken his mind. He followed up a statement Monday shunning the occupation with a lengthy speech Tuesday night on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives invoking the plight of rural residents.

Experts say that reticence is by design.

Tough talk from government officials might rally more supporters to the side of the dozen-plus militants who've warned they'll use violence if police try to move them from their base outside Burns. Candidates, meanwhile, have learned there's far more risk than reward in speaking out on a movement whose grievances around land management have simmered for decades.

Absent some kind of major flare-up, experts say, the Malheur standoff seems set to join others that have faded from national view — failing to shape long-term national debates on issues including gun control and the rights of protesters.

"Washington is trying to downplay this incident," said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA who focuses on gun and constitutional issues. "The government realizes this is a situation they can only lose if they take action. The only possible victory is to allow it to dissipate."

That calculus is only slightly different for candidates.

"They don't want to categorically reject somebody or their grievances," said George Michael, a professor at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and the author of books examining right-wing militants and radical Islam. "But they have to come out on the side of law and order. They don't want to do anything that will incite lawlessness."

Already, that tightrope has shown itself in what few remarks have emerged from upper-echelon candidates. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both vying for the Republican presidential nomination, decried the militants' threats to use their guns on federal agents.

"There is no right to engage in violence against other Americans," Cruz said at a campaign stop in Iowa, according to The Washington Post.

Rubio went further. After saying, "You can't be lawless," he acknowledged that many of the ranchers who sympathize with the militants in Oregon — who want the federal government to turn over control of its land holdings to states and local agencies — have a point.

"There are states, for example, like Nevada that are dominated by the federal government in terms of land holding, and we should fix it, but no one should be doing it in a way that's outside the law," Rubio told an Iowa radio station.

Others have joined Cruz and Rubio in giving brief comments. But not the most outspoken Republican candidate in the field, Donald Trump. Democratic presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have also found that silence is golden.

"By and large, they'll want to avoid the issue," said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York-Cortland. "Maybe there's a sense that these people are just too far out to the fringe" to bother winning over.

Winkler, the UCLA professor, said there's a chance Democrats might seize on the standoff later in the campaign as part of building an argument for stricter gun laws. In that scenario, a candidate such as Clinton could tie the Oregon clash to rhetoric from some gun-rights advocates who argue that Americans need personal firearms to oppose tyranny.

But that seems to be a long shot. Militia standoffs have come and gone over the past 20 years — and none has shaped the debate over gun laws like mass shootings in places such as Newtown and Columbine.

"I'd be surprised if this incident has much of an effect at all," Winkler said, "other than a debate question here and there."

Catherine Stock, a historian and author of the book "Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain," cautioned that militia-style insurrections are nothing new in America. Not in recent decades. And not in "the big sweep of history" stretching back to the 1700s.

Although she did point to at least one new wrinkle in Oregon's standoff: organizers' willingness to blame the government for decades of increasingly crushing rural poverty.

"That's amazing to me," she said. "They're actually saying it. White people have been quite loath to talk about their impoverishment."

She sees similarities to the grass roots — and decidedly nonviolent — Black Lives Matter movement that's galvanized African Americans around poverty, institutional racism and allegations of police brutality.

"They wouldn't think they had anything in common," she said. "And yet they're talking about the same broad structural problems."

Expressions of anger and alienation have already made their way into the political conversation this election cycle — giving loft to outsider candidates such as Sanders and Trump.

But Michael, the Massachusetts professor, said he's not sure the militants have the numbers or "staying power" to win a larger seat at the political table, even with their displays of rage.

"They're really just one segment of what people call the far right," he said. "Some people might be ascribing them with too much."