The West of the '90s is the South of the '60s

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Well, so much for the Revolution.

It was decimated on the Pacific Coast, demolished in the Northeast, even damaged in the South. And it never amounted to much in the Midwest.

So after four short years, it has been expunged, this much-discussed political sea change, often called the Gingrich Revolution, gone and taken its namesake with it, leaving traces here and there, and one strong redoubt - the Rocky Mountain West.

The Rocky Mountain West is the new South, as solidly Republican as the South was solidly Democratic until a generation ago, and as out of sync with the rest of the country on one major set of issues. It is about to become the only region in which every governor is a Republican, and in which Republicans control every legislative chamber outside New Mexico. Of the 25 members of Congress from the Rocky Mountain states, only four will be Democrats. Adding the non-coastal districts of Washington, Oregon and California only makes the region more overwhelmingly Republican.

This Western exceptionalism is instructive because it explains the real split in the Republican Party, which is not the one you've been hearing about on political chat-shows on TV. There you are told that the Republican divide is between the moderates or "pragmatists" who won on November 3, and the conservatives or "ideologues" who lost.

Not really. Some of those pragmatists are pretty conservative fellows. Re-elected Governors George Bush of Texas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan are hard-liners on welfare and crime, penny-pinchers with the public purse, friends of business, opponents of legal abortions. They believe in governing conservatively.

But they do believe in governing. They even believe that the great, big, federal government in Washington should govern, especially when it funnels money to the states. This conviction that government is at least necessary and possibly even beneficial distinguishes these conservative Republicans from Gingrichite congressmen such as Majority Leader (at this writing) Dick Armey and Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, who "believe that Washington is evil," in the words of David Brooks, the conservative scholar who writes for the American Standard.

Gingrich and Armey are from the South, Kasich and a few of his allies are Midwesterners, but their faction of the Republican Party "more libertarian than conservative - is strongest in the Rocky Mountain West.

"It's a regional thing," said David Keene, chairman of the board of the American Conservative Union. "The West has been at war with the Feds forever, even though both parties do tend to govern at the state level."

And indeed, on the state level, much of the West demonstrated its devotion to environmental protection. Montanans voted to ban new or expanded use of cyanide in mines, Colorado voters approved environmental restrictions on factory hog farms, and Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah proposed a new Open Space Preservation Act.

It was hardly an environmental clean sweep. New Mexico defeated a bond measure that would have allowed the state to buy habitat for rare species, and in Oregon an anti-clear-cut referendum was soundly defeated, as anti-clear-cut referenda always have been and always will be, making one wonder why environmentalists continue to propose them.

Still, anti-environmental sentiments are not universal in the West, nor are they the only explanation for Republican dominance. Both traditional Republicanism and religious conservatism have always been strong in the region, and many voters, including newcomers who moved from the East or West coasts to enjoy the outdoors, want environmental protection but prefer Republican positions on crime, welfare, and taxes.

But as the Republican Party nationally tries to figure out what it wants to be now that the budget is balanced and the Cold War is over (two accomplishments for which the GOP can take some credit), this battle between what David Brooks called "activist Republicans' and the party's anti-government wing is likely to take center stage, putting Western Republicans in an interesting dilemma.

Linda DiVall, one of the sharpest Republican pollsters, said one of her party's problems this year was its failure to demonstrate a "capacity to govern." Voters may grumble about government, but they want it to do its job, and most of them think that job includes education, health care and protecting the natural world.

This explains why conservatives such as Brooks are working on an agenda for conservative governance which would be decentralized but not impotent. In the area of land use, for instance, Brooks endorsed the grassroots consultive process of the Quincy Library Group (HCN, 9/29/97). The approach diminishes the federal government, but it still calls for controls and management.

And it explains why even as one of the "revolutionaries" of 1994, Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona was insisting that the GOP keep pushing "smaller government," the equally conservative Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Republicans would have to support more "regulation" of health maintenance organizations.

More regulation is more government.

This debate about the nature of government will define the GOP over the next two years, and Western Republicans may be in the middle of it. To be sure, the West is not a monolith, and the hard-line, anti-government, anti-environmental views are stronger mostly in the lightly populated rural districts and states. In supporting an open-space plan, Gov. Leavitt is doing what the folks in Salt Lake City want him to do, at the risk of enraging the "property rights" zealots in southern Utah.

Other Western governors and senators will have to make similar choices. Some members of Congress, such as Helen Chenoweth of Idaho (and even she has toned down her rhetoric of late) and Richard Pombo of interior California, can continue to appeal to rural anger by being nasty about government and conservationists.

For which there might be a price to pay one day. However imperfect the comparison with the South of the '60s, it may be worth remembering that Atlanta, which long ago billed itself as "the city too busy to hate," is now the center of one of the nation's most prosperous metropolitan areas. Neshoba County, Miss., where the Ku Klux Klan was strong and three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, is not.

(What's that? Oh, some of you remember that just half a moon ago I predicted that the Republicans would pick up close to 20 seats in the House? Well, I said at the time that this prediction dodge was a game for fools, and then proceeded to prove it. Besides, how was I to know that the Republicans would squander their money? Instead of using it for what they do best - lying about their opponents (at which Democrats are no more scrupulous, merely less skilled) - they blew it by attacking President Clinton, executing a de facto, and probably unconscious, reversal of their earlier decision not to nationalize the election.)

Jon Margolis covers the nation's capitol, and occasionally eats crow, from his perch in Barton, Vt.

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