There is an old story that used to be told that defined the differences between the two major political parties, Republican and Democrat. It goes something like this.

There is a person drowning in a lake 30 feet from shore. A Democrat walks by and throws him 60 feet of rope, drops his end to go do another good deed and wishes him luck. A Republican then walks by, throws 25 feet of rope, tells him to swim 5 feet to grab it because it is good for his character and then considers further assistance.

But America has a growing bunch of voters who ascribe to a different theory. They will throw you 30 feet of rope and they will pull to help you out of your predicament, but you had better be helping yourself by kicking like hell on your end. Americans are willing to help, but they refuse to haul dead weight. These voters have abandoned both parties because playing for partisan advantage has trumped solving the country’s problems.

These voters that expressed themselves so decisively in the November 2006 mid-term election will be heavily courted by both parties over the next six months. They won’t be swayed by lofty promises, or more government programs or wedge issues like gay marriage. They have heard it all before and quite frankly are fed up. They want action.

Nowhere is this "independent voter" phenomenon more prevalent than in the American West.  It remains to be seen how this will play out in 2008 and beyond, but early signs are that it will only grow. In fact, we could be seeing the early stages of a national political realignment that shifts political power from East to West.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater, a native son of the West, wrested control of the Republican Party from the Eastern based Rockefeller wing of the party. His heir, Ronald Reagan, a Westerner in every sense of the word, was a pragmatist who carried on Goldwater’s work. He preached "big tent" Republicanism which allowed him to put together a broad political coalition that carried him to four landslide electoral victories both as Governor and as President.

But when Reagan left the political scene, there was no strong leader to pick up his mantle and hold the coalition together. Republicans used to dominate the West, including California, but it seems they have abandoned their Western bastion and built their redoubt in the South. From 1948 to 1988, Republicans won California in every presidential election except the 1964 LBJ landslide. Since then, they have lost it in four consecutive elections. And if you look at the results of the 2006 election, their hold on other Western states appears to be slipping away.

That is not to say that the voters think Democrats and big government are the answer. Quite the contrary, Westerners believe in "responsive government" and are traditionally suspicious of big government. They are fiscally conservative and socially libertarian not liberal. They believe in low taxes and limited government, which can be translated into "keep your hands off my wallet and your snoopy nose out of my personal life". If Democrats think their positions on taxes and social issues are acceptable to this bloc of voters, they totally misread the results of 2006. And if Republicans think it was all about Iraq and earmarks, they too are deluding themselves.

Clearly, the West is central to the Democrat’s strategy.  It is why they held an early caucus in Nevada and their convention in Denver.  And although the outcome is far from certain and is likely to play out over an extended period of time, there is no question that the West and western values will play a central role in electing our leaders for years to come.