One needn't go far to find mention of how the gun-slingin', moose-eatin' vice presidential pick of John McCain is going to snowmobile to victory this November on the backs of rural Western voters. Because she's from the West (Alaska via Idaho), and because she's been mayor of a small town (a suburb, actually), and because she is a member of the National Rifle Association and likes to fish and hunt, folks figure that Palin is just what McCain needs to pick up pluralities in battleground states like Montana, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
Indeed, a few days after Palin's convention speech, McCain jumped into the lead in Montana polls. That seemed to confirm Palin's power in the West, and it debunked Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's prediction of a week earlier: "Right now it's tied. In Montana, we don't care about social issues. We like guns," he said, explaining that since McCain once tried to regulate gun shows, gun-rights voters would instead go for Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr, breaking the tie in Obama's favor.
Palin's appeal to pistol-packing Montanans appears to have wrecked that dynamic. And, if we are to believe that a large swath of middle-ground Western voters care more about guns than other issues, then we can assume that this same dynamic is rippling across the West.
I don't think that's a safe assumption. In fact, many Republicans may ultimately vote against Palin.
It helps to understand that the myth of the West as a conservative stronghold is just that, a myth. Over the past several decades we've gone from red, to blue, and back to purple. Unions -- often leaning left of Democrats -- long ruled the mining towns of the West, then were busted. FDR and Truman swept most of the region; so did Eisenhower. Reagan dominated the West; so did Clinton (with the help of Ross Perot). We're distinguished more by our historical independence in our voting than by any party affiliation. Both Democrats and Republicans in the region tend toward the middle.
Old-timer politicos have told me that they started seeing threats to that independence and moderation in the 1980s, when the Republican party seemed to be infected by a harder line, and an evangelical stain seeped into the region's politics. After a history of moderate and populist voting, for example, Colorado became home in 1991 to the ultra-conservative Focus on the Family organization. Just a year later, voters in the state approved an anti-gay ballot measure, prompting Colorado to be called the "hate state."
For a while, the region's GOP went along for the ride. Then George W. Bush took power, and brought the hardline evangelism into the Oval Office. W takes pride in governing from the gut, with the help of God. While there's a certain cowboy mentality inherent in this approach, it doesn't sit well with rural Westerners who care more about personal liberty and their home landscapes than about religion (Westerners generally attend church far less than the rest of the nation). As such, many of them have felt battered by their own party in recent years. The natural gas drilling boom has soiled their backyards, farms and ranches, and has encroached on the favorite hunting and fishing spots of many a conservative. The Patriot Act rubbed Westerners the wrong way because it threatened civil liberties. And the evangelical Christian tendency to use government to force its ideology on others, from banning gay marriage to telling a woman she can't choose what to do with her own body, is an assault on the Western ideal of governmental non-interference. Even the Iraq War doesn't fly with all old-time Western Republicans, who tend towards isolationism. (anti-war Republican Ron Paul beat McCain in caucuses and primaries in Nevada, Alaska and Montana).
In response, many Western conservatives have risen up in rebellion. Hunters and anglers and "Teddy Roosevelt" Republicans have joined forces with environmentalists by way of various organizations such as Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation to push the energy industry to operate more responsibly. In 2006, State Rep. Mark Larson, who hails from a small farming and ranching town in Western Colorado, also mutinied, describing his party this way: “I am a 1964 Goldwater Republican, and I don’t want government in my life, including my private life. But the party’s changing. They’ve abandoned issues like the environment and have litmus tests. They’ve forgotten about President Reagan’s big tent.” He dropped out of a state senate race, effectively handing it to the Democrats. At about the same time, state Sen. Norma Anderson, R, resigned. The conservative decried the increasing influence of the “ideological Christian conservatives” in her party as a reason for leaving.
It's into this Grand Ol' Beehive that Palin has stumbled. And though she talks an independent streak, she doesn't walk it. Instead, she seems cut from the same mold as W. Bush: She relies on prayer to help get pipelines built that bolster her state's status as an energy colony; she sort of believes in global warming, but doesn't think humans have anything to do with it; and she seems to have no qualms about the mingling of evangelical Christianity and politics, even going so far as to imply that the Iraq War is a holy battle.
Meanwhile, Palin's soundtrack has become the Republican National Convention chant: "Drill, Baby, Drill."
It's hard to imagine these stances resonating with Western libertarians, not to mention the hunters and anglers -- 74 percent of whom are Republicans or independents -- who responded to a recent poll. Seventy percent of those polled said that the country is on the wrong track when it comes to meeting energy needs, and 73 percent agreed that "we have a moral responsibility to confront global warming." Another 47 percent said conservation is just as important as gun rights.
"Not a week goes by now that I don’t hear from someone in that redneck, red state homeland of mine about some place that’s lost – a place to fish, a place to hunt, a place to camp – that’s been converted to an industrial zone," said Walt Gasson, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican and Wyoming native. "Energy development is the greatest challenge to wild things and wild places we have faced in the last three decades ... If we do not deal with this challenge proactively, credibly and responsibly, we will lose the home place."
It's not just the loss of landscape and liberties that worries Western independent voters, it's also the loss of respect and manners in political debate. The day after Palin gave her address to the Republican National Convention, with a sarcasm and smugness that made her sound more like someone running for junior class vice president than the nation's, I ran into an acquaintance on the street of Paonia, Colo. He told me he had never voted for anyone but a Republican in his whole life. This year, he watched both conventions, and was visibly turned off by the tone of the latter. This year, he's voting for Obama.
McCain may have once appealed to old school Western Republicans. Like them, he was independent, a "straight-talker" who was willing to cross party lines -- a maverick, if you will. Like them, he worried about climate change and took a pragmatic, not ideological, approach to issues. (He still opposes drilling in ANWR, and he took strong stances on some environmental issues). But during his campaign, he has slid to the ideological right, and away from the West, a slide that was confirmed -- not reversed -- by the Palin pick. Impulsiveness does not a maverick make.
If I'm right about one thing, that Westerners think with their brains, not their guns, then they won't fall for this trick. After all, we've already been down this road, twice, with our current vice president. You can put lipstick on Dick Cheney, but at the end of the day, if voters pick McCain and Palin, we're still going to have a drill-happy, gun-slingin', hard-liner, rural Western vice president with ties to the oil industry in the White House. And the results, I suspect, will be the same.