Blue-ing the West
Hart's analysis borrowed significantly from Christopher Caldwell's influential 1998 article in The Atlantic Monthly, titled "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," in which Caldwell argued that the Southern flavor of the Republican Party, while providing it with short-term electoral success, was in the long run an Achilles' heel, with the conservative values espoused by the party faithful ultimately alienating middle-of-the-road suburbanites and Westerners.
The onetime senator's memo concluded with a prophecy: "The national Democratic Party should look Westward. The South will return to the Democratic Party only when economic downturn requires it. Meanwhile, the West provides the Democratic Party's greatest opportunity and represents its greatest future. National Party leaders must develop a plan to win the West in the early twenty-first century or risk settling into minority status for many years to come."
Westerners generally oppose government legislation on sexual morality, are tolerant of medical marijuana (on November 7, in an underreported sideshow to the main election, 44 percent of Nevadans voted in favor of an initiative that proposed legalizing marijuana across the board), dislike the more intrusive aspects of legislation such as the Patriot Act and tend to be less influenced by fundamentalist Baptist churches than are voters in the South. When Gallup conducted a poll last June on what noneconomic issues were of most importance to voters, 7 percent of Southerners said ethical/moral/religious decline worried them most, whereas only 3 percent of those in the coastal and interior Western states responded that way. Westerners were more preoccupied with the emerging energy crisis. In general, they are responding more to issues Democrats have made their own in recent years and are less receptive to the religious issues Republicans have hyped so effectively elsewhere in the country.
"I'm very prochoice," says Napolitano, recalling her election campaign. "I said, 'I'm not going to support any laws limiting a woman's right to choose. End of story. Move on.' We should be fighting on new ground--like healthcare. There are initiatives like the minimum wage where the Republicans have to fight on our terms rather than the other way around."
Not too long ago, it would have been hard to imagine the Republicans being successfully painted as big-government advocates by progressive Democrats touting their small-government credentials. But, as a mark of how the Bush presidency has turned things upside down, that is precisely what Western Democratic strategists are now doing.
Whereas Washington, DC, used to intervene against reactionary state policies like the poll tax and educational segregation, these days it is Washington that is proving reactionary on issues ranging from its failure to rein in carbon dioxide emissions to Congress's repeated rejection of an increase in the minimum wage, from the legislation GOP lawmakers rushed through during the morbid Terri Schiavo spectacle to vast tax giveaways to Big Oil. As important, a Republican administration that touts its conservative credentials has, over the past six years, been busily spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than it brings in each year in tax revenues, running up the largest budget deficit in American history. And increasingly, it is aggrieved politicians and voters in the states who are forming a backlash against this irresponsibility.
In a way, on social issues, Western Democrats, represented by figures like organic-farmer-cum-Senator Jon Tester, are more the party of that iconic Westerner Barry Goldwater than is the big-business- and religious-right-dominated GOP. To an increasing number of desert and mountain Westerners--including socially liberal, economically conservative Californians who have been moving inland in pursuit of cheaper land and open space--it is GOP hard-liners who threaten their way of life most, by imposing policies crafted by rigidly conservative lobbyists and kingmakers inside the Beltway or by equally uncompromising local party apparatchiks.