US political tilt to West -- what it means and what it doesn't mean

As President-elect Ronald Reagan packs his cowboy boots and hat for his official move to the East, this bellwether query still hovers over the outcome of last month's election: Is American politics riding off into the West?

There is no doubt, say political sages, that in terms of clout and prevailing philosophies the country is beginning to tilt to the Western United States.

For one thing, increasing numbers of Easterners and Mid-westerners are trekking westward in search of the good life, triggering a growing shift in voting power from the Northeast to the Southwest. The shift will be reflected in a gain of congressional seats by the region, when the US House of Representatives is redistricted on the basis of the 1980 census.

Perhaps more significant is the key role of the West is destined to play in coping with such pressing national demands as new energy sources, more agricultural products, and modernization of the US nuclear deterrent.

"The issues on the front burner of the national agenda today are Western issues. They are that will be played out in this part of the country," says Philip Burgess, executive director of the Western Governor's Policy Office (WESTPO), a coalition of interior Western states.

He notes that the 11 member states are rich in minerals and bountiful in crops. Collectively, the states rank as the world's largest uranium producer, fifth-largest coal producer, and second-largest corn producer. And the government is concentrating its multibillion-dollar synfuel hopes in the rugged Rockies of Colorado and Utah.

As for defense, it is on federal lands splayed across Nevada and Utah that the US Air Force hopes to plant the controversial MX missile, the largest public works project proposed in history.

Add to all these factors a horseback-riding President-elect who is aiming to streamline the institution regarded most suspiciously by independent Westerners -- the federal government -- and the climate, observers say, seems to augur well for a political hoedown of sorts in the West.

But this does not mean, political analysts say, that the zealous conservatism of the New Right can be expected to run rampant across the West, from the plains to the Pacific. On the contrary, they note, any such broad-brush political profile of the West grossly oversimplifies the complexities of a maverick region that defies pigeonholing.

It is true that the West, once the breeding ground for Eugene Debs's International Workers of the world Movement and a backer of the New Deal politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt, has grown considerably more conservative over the past few decades. This conservatism, found among people who call themselves Democrats, as well as among Republicans, is based on a self-reliance that dates-back to the rough-and-tumble days of the wild west.

It is fueled by a sence of "being picked on," as one observer says -- a resentment of and feeling of alienation from the federal government displayed by disgruntled Westerners as openly as a lovelorn suitor wears his heart on his sleeve.

But running through that conservatism is a streak of headstrong independence. One look at the region in light of the Nov. 4 election shows just how unpredictable the West can be. This time around there were, of course, the much lamented and rejoiced-over (depending on one's politics) defeats of such Democratic Party giants as Washington's Sen. Warren Magnuson, Idaho's Sen. Frank Church, and Oregon's Rep. Al Ullman.

At the same time, however, Arizona's Barry Goldwater -- the patriarch of the New Right -- nearly lost his seat in a state notorious for its conservatism. Meanwhile, Arizonans sent Rep. Morris Udall, a leading Democrat, back to Capitol Hill with the largest margin of victory he's had in years.

And in a California race targeted by conservative activists, Sen. Alan Cranston, a liberal Democrat, won an easy victory over Paul Gann, coauthor of the Proposition 13 tax revolt.

Observers note, also, that Idaho's Church lost by a mere 1 percent -- a stark contrast to the whopping defeat Jimmy Carter suffered in the state, his worst in the country.

If election results don't make the West perplexing enough, there are a number of contradictions in attitude as well. While Westerners harp about the burden of federal regulations, they are also jealously protective about the vast open spaces they have.

According to 1979 polling of Rocky Mountain residents taken by the Behavior Research Center, Westerners favor strengthening environmental protection laws by a 3-to-2 margin.

Although the polls indicated a conservative inclination among those questioned, says director Earl de Berge, the startlingly contradictory sentiments it revealed inluded a perception of big business as a threat to American democracy by some 40 percent of WEsterners.

Despite the West's apparent new clout in Washington, including nine important committee chairmanship's in the Republican-controlled Senate, power in terms of sheer numbers still eludes the region. Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, Mr. Burgess notes, 211 are from the Northeast and only 24 hail from the 11 states represented by WESTPO.

And, pundits warn, there is no guarantee that Reagan will be able to keep the West solidly behind him. Western sentiment could easily turn against the President-elect in four years if he fails to ease the burden of federal government, they say.

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