updated 7/15/2008 7:03:31 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:03:31

Washington state, for a moment in the late 1990s, seemed to be the national trend-setter. From Starbucks coffee to grunge music, from America’s leading exporter, Boeing, to the world’s leading software maker, Microsoft, to America’s most visible dot-com, amazon.com, Washington seemed to be on the cutting edge of innovation. What was for many years an odd far corner of America had become a model for the rest of the nation. An unusual environment and human creativity combined to produce these achievements: Seattle’s cold misty air and 225 overcast days a year stimulate the appetite for strong aromatic coffee, and the shapeless blue jeans and sweatshirts worn year-round in this moist climate by professionals and teenagers alike created a trend made famous by Nirvana and Soundgarden and other grunge artists. Boeing’s airframe business took off during World War II because the Pacific Northwest’s abundant hydroelectric power made cheap aluminum possible, and the boom in air travel in the 1980s and 1990s kept Boeing’s huge assembly lines humming. Microsoft, founded by the usually tie-less and tousle-haired Bill Gates and based in Redmond, across Lake Washington from Seattle, became one of America’s great success stories as its software became embedded in the vast majority of the world’s computers. With flannel shirts and umbrellas, blue-collar types working off hangovers as if in a Raymond Carver story, and professionals relaxing on woodsy acreage, Washington set a tone for the late 1990s, a style plainly Middle American but with attitude, an ordinariness so hip it is no longer ordinary. As the end of the century approached, Washington was a commonwealth of nearly 6 million people, economically booming, pleased to the point of smugness with its physical environment and lifestyle. Since that high point Washington has had its woes, and has bounced back again, perhaps not so fashionable as it was for a moment, but with strengths that have proved to be more durable than fashion.

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Washington is a state which is not much more than a century old, one which in the two decades after statehood in 1889 built a new civilization, as transcontinental railroads reached the great ports of Puget Sound, the wheat-processing city of Spokane inland, orchard towns and fishing ports and lumber settlements. Shielded from the storms of the Pacific by the Olympic Mountains and the Sound, Seattle quickly became a serious American city, a lusty town full of lumbermen and railroad workers. When gold was struck in the Klondike and Alaska, Seattle became a metropolis of miners, prospectors and get-rich-quick operators, the site of the original “Skid Road” (skid row is a corruption propagated by a 1937 magazine article), where logs were rolled downhill to the port; today it’s the focus of the restored Pioneer Square area. Thriving young Seattle had a turbulent class-warfare politics in the years before World War I, pitting the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or Wobblies) against city business and civic leaders; the businessmen, after some violence, prevailed. Adding to the area’s distinctiveness was its large number of Scandinavian immigrants, with their favorable views of cooperative enterprises and government ownership.

Over time, Washington was transformed by a series of national decisions that set its course for decades. One was government development of hydroelectric power. The Columbia River and its tributary, the Snake, falling thousands of feet in a relatively short distance, had far greater hydroelectric potential than any other American river system, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who grew up in a great river valley, was always interested in these river valley projects. In 1937 Bonneville Dam was completed on the lower Columbia; in 1940 Grand Coulee Dam, the largest man-made structure in the world at the time and still the nation’s single greatest producer of electricity, was opened where the Columbia cuts through the arid, surrealistically contoured plains of eastern Washington. Washington proved hospitable to the industrial union movement of the 1930s and became one of the nation’s most heavily unionized states. When war came, Washington’s hydroelectric power—the cheapest electricity in the country—made it the natural site for huge aluminum production plants, which required vast amounts of electricity, and the Seattle area became the home not only of shipbuilders, but of what became the biggest aircraft manufacturer in the country, Boeing, founded in 1916 by William Boeing after he bought a shipyard on the Duwamish River and turned it into an airplane factory. After the war, the Hanford plant on the Columbia was one of the government’s main nuclear weapons manufacturing sites. Cheap power, aluminum, aircraft, nuclear weapons and high unionized wages: these became Washington’s economic foundations in the post-World War II years.

Today’s Washington lives less off the brawn of hydroelectric power and rail and ship tonnage and more off the brains that made Boeing the world leader in aircraft and Microsoft the world leader in software. Yet there has been some trouble in this misty paradise. A turning point came in December 1999, when Seattle hosted a meeting of the World Trade Organization. This was supposed to be an occasion for the city to shine in the international spotlight. But 50,000 demonstrators took control of the streets, smashing Starbucks’ windows and preventing leaders from Bill Clinton on down from attending meetings; Seattle’s police chief and mayor did little to stop the violence. Seattle became a symbol of mindless protest and lawless violence. The image was reinforced in the Mardi Gras riots in February 2001; voters responded, and Mayor Paul Schell carried only 22% of the vote in the September 2001 primary to become the first Seattle mayor in 45 years to lose a reelection bid. Washington was hurt also by the dot-com bust; the high-tech industry boomed as businesses retooled to avoid Y2K problems, then it suddenly became apparent that customers had all the technology they needed, the stock market started tanking in March 2000, and thousands of dot-coms were taken down. Microsoft was sued by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division in 1998; in March 2001, Boeing’s chairman announced that the firm’s headquarters would be moved out of Seattle, to Chicago. Then, after September 11, the airline industry was hard hit and cut back its orders; Boeing cut back its Seattle area employment from 102,000 in 1997 to 62,000 in 2002. Boeing continued to suffer from the airline recession, competition from Airbus and congressional opposition to the proposal to lease KC-767 aerial refueling tankers, a proposal that failed amid revelations of corruption. Recovery from the recession was slow: Washington’s unemployment for a couple of years was the second highest in the nation, after Oregon’s, and the state lost 84,000 jobs between 2001 and 2003. Amid this turbulence, the fundamentals undergirding Washington’s affluent life seemed threatened. Proposals by Clinton administration officials to breach the dams on the Snake River threatened to reduce hydroelectric supply and to choke the agriculture of eastern Washington just as the court decision to protect the endangered spotted owl largely shut down Washington’s logging industry in the early 1990s. Light snowpacks and melting glaciers threatened to reduce the supply of hydroelectric power even as demand from energy-starved California seemed likely to draw down supply. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced plutonium for the military, for years leaked radioactive waste and has been in the midst of a multiyear cleanup costing billions a year.

All these problems may turn out to be no more than footnotes to what is mainly a story of success. Look at a map that shows elevation of mountains and density of population. On both sides of the Pacific, vast numbers of people are squeezed into small margins of level land between steeply rising volcanic mountains and the sea, or tucked into valleys. These islands of settlement are surrounded by vast wildernesses—desert and mountains, open sea and Arctic lands. Yet the inhabitants of these pockets of the Pacific Rim in the last three decades have produced more economic growth than anywhere else in the world and, if there are occasional slumps, the Pacific Rim has always come surging back. And, as it has turned out, Washington’s laid-back tolerance was not so excessive as to undermine its impressive achievements. Boeing overcame the 767 scandal and its 787 Dreamliner has clobbered Airbus’s troubled A350 in advanced orders; the new aircraft was unveiled to the public in July 2007 at the final assembly plant in Everett. Microsoft has survived the federal antitrust case and continues to expand its 35,000-employee Redmond campus. Starbucks, with 10,000 stores in the U.S. in May 2007, has proved to be the fastest growing retail business of all time; there is presumably some limit to the number of people willing to spend $4 on a cup of coffee, but it hasn’t been reached yet. Hydroelectric power may have reached its capacity, but in 2006 Washington ranked second in the amount of generated wind power added in the past year.

Politically, Washington, with its Scandinavian and labor union heritage, was in the 1930s one of the most Democratic northern states: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign manager James Farley used to refer to “the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington.” Its mainstream Democrats—notably Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, who represented the state in Congress for a total of 87 years—believed in an active and compassionate federal government that built dams, aluminum plants and the Hanford Works at home, and an internationalist, anti-Communist foreign policy abroad. Their political strength was built on a blue-collar base, augmented by the respect big businesses had for their political clout. Today, the fulcrum of the electorate has moved from blue collar to white collar, from economic class warfare to cultural wars, with the balance favoring the Democrats. In presidential races, Washington leans Democratic. Washington’s governor and both of its senators are all Democrats and all women. Democrats hold six of Washington’s nine U.S. House seats. Four different Democrats have held the governorship since 1984, but the party almost lost it in 2004. The official count, after many shenanigans and legal challenges, declared that Christine Gregoire had been elected governor by 129 votes, and while Republicans lost control of the state Senate, they gained the attorney general’s office. But in 2006 the pendulum swung hard in favor of the Democrats. They nearly captured the 8th District U.S. House seat, which would have eliminated Republican representation west of the Cascades, and Senator Maria Cantwell was reelected by a solid 57%-40% margin, sweeping western Washington and carrying Spokane County in the east as well. Democrats increased their majorities from 3 to 15 in the state Senate and from 14 to 28 in the state House. Gregoire attributed these gains to the Democrats’ moderation, their resolution of a water dispute in eastern Washington, passage of tax relief for farmers and timber sellers, a compromise settlement on unemployment insurance and tough penalties for sex offenders. But with bigger margins, some Democrats and their union allies are pressing for big public sector pay increases and state health care funding.

The political lines are fairly clear. The central city of Seattle is increasingly the liberal bastion, the upscale suburbs have been trending Democratic, while old blue-collar lumber country strongholds have soured on many Democrats. Seattle’s King County, by a wide margin the most affluent county in the state, is also its liberal stronghold: 65% for John Kerry in 2004, with a popular vote margin of 279,000, the sixth highest of any county in the nation. Republicans run best in the arid country east of the Cascades with far lower income levels. This is a marchland between the culturally liberal Pacific Rim and the culturally conservative Rocky Mountains: it voted 60% for George W. Bush in 2004. Long-range demographic trends may favor Republicans: King County grew only 5% from 2000 to 2006, and the fastest-growing counties were in the Republican Tri-Cities area and in increasingly conservative Clark County north of Portland. (Washington has no income tax and Oregon no sales tax, so you can avoid both taxes by living in Clark County and shopping across the line in Oregon.) But Democrats’ advantage is so large at this point that it seems impervious to incremental demographic change.

A footnote on Washington’s primaries. Washington does not have party registration, and from 1935 to 2000 Washington allowed voters to choose candidates of various parties in its primaries; the top Democrat and top Republican in each constituency was deemed nominated, and the percentage of total votes won by incumbents in September primaries was often a harbinger of their performance in the November general election. But in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court by a 7–2 vote threw out a similar California primary system, and in 2003 a federal appeals court ruled Washington’s invalid. The Supreme Court’s theory was that this arrangement somehow violates the political parties’ right to self-expression, which seems to mean the exclusion of voters that party leaders don’t want voting in their primaries; why the parties’ right to self-expression takes precedence over the voters’ right to self-expression seems unclear. In 2004, Washington voters passed Initiative 872, which allows voters to select a candidate from either party, with the two candidates with the most votes moving to the general election, regardless of party. In anticipation of the 2005 off-year primaries, both parties held nominating conventions to avoid application of 872; in July 2005, a federal appeals court ruled it invalid. That seemed to be the end of that, but in February 2007 the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on the validity of 872. Had the court perhaps changed its mind?

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