CHEVALIER: Rough riding on the western trail

Ranchers want a president who respects the frontier

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Riding the range to find the whole of our country — the expansiveness and grit, the pragmatism and perseverance — is not simply the fantasy of an ardent Teddy Roosevelt. The range is still a place that can make a president. Today, it is also a mess of federal government tomfoolery.

Back in 2008, “hope and change” stirred in the sagebrush like an endangered species, and it looked as though candidate Barack Obama would make inroads into the Republican heartland. I invited the then-senator to an event at the Explorers Club in New York City, “Nature and Culture on America’s Rangeland.” His office was gracious enough to call with his “no”; I was ungracious enough to press: “I can get him out on a working ranch anytime.”

Until my own Western adventures, I also held to the liberal creed: The best and brightest could restore faithfulness and legitimacy to Father Government. (The dream of all children of single mothers?) I wanted Mr. Obama to confront, as I had, big government where it is the most tangibly oppressive — in our 12 Western “public lands” states, our once-upon-a-time wild open frontier, where the federal government controls as much as 80 percent of each state’s land base and, with it, the lives of its rural residents.

There, unmanaged national forests are so riven with timber beetles that they are nothing more than a mass of kindling waiting for a lightning strike. There, environmentalists can claim that one ornery rancher’s lambs pose a dire disease threat to bighorn sheep. The only problem: The Continental Divide separates the wild sheep population from the tame herd. And that rancher who “wouldn’t compromise”? His ranch is a magnet for biodiversity and a model of sustainable management, and that environmentalist never had even one conversation with him. Out there, a federal land manager could point to a badly battered parcel of range and bark: “Your cows will have to be kept off this allotment for a year!” The rancher replied: “That’s interesting, son — especially because those hoofprints are elk, not cow, and there’s been no cattle here in 18 months.”

Out there, all the hard-won knowledge of our multigenerational ranchers, farmers, loggers and fishermen is discounted and disdained, while liberalism’s unexamined colonial and patriarchal impulses run amok among the environmental left.

So now I am watching the thankfully charisma-free Mitt Romney hedge his way toward the heartland. If President Obama proved to be much less than he purported, many of us in the center are pegging our remaining hopes on the possibility that candidate Romney will be much more than his uneasy affability would portend.

What I am missing in the Romney candidacy isn’t compassion, conviction or even the “vision thing” — all of which are manufactured too easily and cheaply. What I am missing isn’t even a better set of policies. After the frenzy of thousand-page bills that no one reads and most of us hate, I have a hankering for a policy liberation zone in Washington.

What I am missing in the Romney candidacy is a sign that Mr. Romney can step up to his horse, take a long hard look at nothing but poor choices, and — darn it all — saddle up anyway.

Don’t ask us to like you, governor. We have a president who is our pal; now we need one who is our leader. This horse is skittish, sir. It has lost trust in the rider. It senses only bad things on the horizon and is ready to buck and run. Show us that you can sit deep in the saddle and ride out this storm with us because, right now, the storm is all many of us have left.

If by chance a modern-day Mormon can’t locate the frontier, give me a call. Mitt Romney might just find there the sweet spot for leadership in this divided country — his inner “rough rider” and a presidency gained not by default, but by character.

Joan Chevalier is a speechwriter in New York City.

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