Every week, I drive down from Staunton on Thursday night or early Friday morning to teach my Shakespeare class at the Shepherd’s Center and visit Mom at the Crossings.
Last Friday, I also took the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot. I didn’t vote with any great enthusiasm, but neither did I hesitate.
Please forgive me if I’m plowing an old furrow, but for those who joined this conversation recently, it might be useful to sketch out where I’m coming from – or rather, where I come from.
Like most native Chesterfielders of my vintage, I grew up in the old, monolithic, conservative Democratic Party. Dad was in politics, so I got to see the process up close, and I found it fascinating. Still, by the time I graduated from UVA, I realized that my personal politics were those of a liberal Republican – in the tradition of Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Nelson Rockefeller.
If you’re a younger reader, you might be scratching your head. “Liberal Republicans” once roamed North America in great numbers. Forty years ago, they became an endangered species. They’re now thought to be extinct – though there are reports of occasional, unconfirmed sightings in New England.
In my case, I joined the GOP in 1978, served in the Republican administration of Governor John Dalton, and campaigned actively for John Warner in his first run for the Senate. In 1980, when the Reaganites gained control of the party, I could read the writing on the wall. I became an independent.
Despite a brief effort to find a place in the Democratic Party - in the early 2000s – I’ve gradually come to realize that I’m a man without a party.
And I hate that. I understand that a great many Americans don’t like political parties. Such people are completely comfortable being independents.
I also appreciate that there are folks who like belonging to a political party which can meet around somebody’s kitchen table; folks who take their ideology strong and undiluted, and who’d rather be right than risk winning an election, and actually having to get their hands dirty with all the compromises that come when you govern.
I respect both perspectives. I have friends who are confirmed Libertarians and Greens. As noted, I consider myself an independent. But I truly prefer party politics. I grew up with it. I speak the language of caucuses and conventions. Moreover, decades of studying and teaching history persuade me that political parties are essential to the proper functioning of a democratic republic.
I just don’t accept the proposition that two major parties are enough.
The party I belong in doesn’t exist, but I believe that it will, someday. Growing numbers of Americans share the basic bundle of opinions which once characterized the liberal wing of the GOP. They aspire to playing a constructive role as part of a serious political organization. In time, they’ll come together.
But for the moment – for this election – that viable third party does not exist. So, for me, it became a question of voting for one of two major-party candidates for President.
My choice was obvious, if not easy. Under current circumstances, I vote the way I invest. I like a safe choice, with upside potential.
For that reason, I pay little attention to campaign promises, and none at all to attack ads. I look for evidence of a candidate’s ideas, thought processes, and character.
Four years ago, I voted for John McCain. I had followed his career for decades. I knew him to be a good man, and I felt I had a solid idea as to how he would govern.
Senator Obama struck me as an inexperienced youth, with obvious charm and intelligence, but whose character and judgment were untested.
This year, Mr. Obama won my vote. After four years in the White House, he’s figured out the job. In foreign policy, thanks especially to an exceptional Secretary of State, he’s been quite impressive. At home, he took a long time getting started, and has been hampered by divided government – and there, he has been less than stellar. He’s too casual about debt, far too passive about the environment, and still lacking in long-range vision.
But in office, Mr. Obama has been solid, moderate, and responsible. He doesn’t scare me.
Governor Romney mystifies me. As governor of Massachusetts, he governed as the sort of liberal Republican I identify with. But when he started running for President, he gradually moved to the far right – not in the ways a man would because he’d gained new wisdom, but in the ways he would because he wanted to be elected.
Over the past eight years, Mr. Romney has gone from smart, broad-minded and pragmatic to narrow-minded, ideological, and dumb.
Until recently, when suddenly - just in time for the debates– he swung violently back toward the center.
From which I draw the only logical conclusion. Mr. Romney has no core beliefs – or at least, none which matter as much to him as his own ambitions. He seems willing to say anything, adopt any pose, in order to become President.
He has become, as old-time Chesterfielders would have said, “a pig in a poke”.
If Mr. Romney wins, he might prove to be conservatives’ dream President. Or their worst nightmare. For certain, he will – from the moment he takes the oath – start positioning himself to run for re-election. By reading the polls.
For me, then, it comes down to this. Mr. Obama has become a known commodity. He’s not great, but I’m comfortable enough giving him another four years.
Mr. Romney is an enigma – an empty suit whose ideals are no more durable than the latest opinion poll. He’s been on the national scene for decades, yet nobody – perhaps not even Mr. Romney himself – knows who he really is.
And, personally, I don’t like buying a pig in a poke.