Inauguration Day musings
Today, George W. Bush will take the oath of office for a second term, having won a narrow victory in both the popular and the Electoral College vote. I haven't spoken much (yet) about politics, but the Inauguration that will take place later today makes it hard to resist. (Don't worry; it won't become a habit.)
I've been pretty conservative politically most of my adult life. The vast majority of my family are liberal—my late uncle even bragged about voting for Gus Hall!—making it odd that I should turn out this way. Because I'm the oldest sibling and have for the most part always been a "straight arrow," a long time ago one of my sisters (who is a bit of the black sheep of the family) joked that perhaps this represents my way of rebelling against my parents. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this, but I don't think that was the reason. Most people form their political views in their late teens, in late high school and early college years. This was certainly true for me. My senior year in high school spanned 1979 and 1980. In November of that year, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was overrun by students and our diplomats held hostage for well over a year. I remember watching the "America Held Hostage" night after night. I remember the reinstatement of draft registration that year. I remember the disastrous attempt at rescuing the hostages, leading to a helicopter crash in the desert and the deaths of U.S. servicemen. But most of all, I remember the seeming impotence of Jimmy Carter to deal with the crisis.
In the 1980 elections, I cast my first vote ever for Ronald Reagan and never looked back. I voted Republican in every Presidential election through 2000. I also tended to vote Republican for nearly every other office as well (with the exception of the times I voted for John Glenn for Senate while living in Ohio, but, because John Glenn was about as Republican a Democrat as there is, I don't really count him). True, I was never comfortable with the religious right that was slowly taking over the party, beginning in the Reagan years, but I agreed with most other planks (strong defense, limited government, low taxes, etc.). So I swallowed hard and kept voting Republican.
Until last year.
In 2004, for the first time ever in a Presidential election, I did not vote Republican. Something happened over the last 10 years or so. First it was the rabid attacks on Clinton. I never liked Clinton. I always thought that Clinton more than lived up to his nickname of Slick Willie. Still, I just couldn't understand the intensity of the attacks against him by my erstwhile ideologic soulmates. Some of my friends reacted strangely to my comments that the whole thing seemed way overblown. The reaction seemed so far out of proportion to Clinton's actual offenses to me. I had been listening to Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talkers when I happened to be in my office during the afternoon, and gradually I found that they no longer entertained me but rather annoyed me. This culminated in early 2000, when Rush Limbaugh's attacks on John McCain, who was my choice for the Republican nomination, hit a level of vitriol that really ticked me off. Finally, I started to notice that the religious fundamentalists, who had been growing in power in the Republican Party, were now really powerful.
Still, old habits die hard. I ended up holding my nose and voting for G. W. Bush, hoping he would be like his father and because I couldn't imagine myself ever voting for a Democrat for President. I viewed him as probably harmless. Because his proposals were more in line with my usual politics than not (and closer to mine when compared with Al Gore), I overlooked my misgivings about his lack of gravitas and his enthusiastic embrace of religious fundamentalists. Initially, he seemed to do OK. I thought his tax cut was a little excessive, but not ridiculous.
Then came September 11.
I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Bush reacted (after his initial missteps on the actual day of the attacks, of course). His grabbing the bullhorn on near the wreckage of the World Trade Center was a political masterstroke, one I could never picture Al Gore doing to rally the nation. His speech to the nation nine days after the attacks was masterful, far better than anything I had ever seen or expected from him (or seen from him since). I fully supported going to war in Afghanistan.
Then came Iraq.
I always had grave misgivings about the whole venture. I thought it was taking the eye off the ball and shifting resources away from our real war, our war against al Qaeda. But I suspect I suffered from a bit the same psychosis that gripped the nation in the aftermath of September 11. My usually skeptical nature (remember the theme of this blog) was blunted, and I accepted the rationale for going to war, even though, deep down, I think I realized it was a horrifically bad idea. And it was a bad idea, one that has turned out to be a disaster. It doesn't take a foreign policy expert to see that this is probably the biggest foreign policy mistake the U.S. has made in my lifetime, and my lifetime spans the Gulf of Tonkin incident (although barely). Over 1,000 American troops are dead, over 10,000 wounded, and our Army is stretched thin. We are expending blood and treasure at an alarming rate fighting an insurgency that seems to be growing in strength. Worse, we can't back out now, because backing out would be worse than trying to stay the course.
I was faced with a real dilemma in November. I really detested Kerry, but Bush had screwed up so royally that I couldn't see rewarding him with my repeat vote. (Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, and all that.) Worse, he had abandoned the one aspect of conservatism that mattered most to me: fiscal conservatism. Federal spending grew enormously under Bush, ballooning the deficit, and it couldn't all be blamed on the War on Terror. (Although I used to be a tax cut advocate, over the last decade or so, I've become a bit of a deficit hawk.) I also lean towards the libertarian side, and what I saw was a massive expansion of federal power at the expense of local governments happening under Bush's watch (something liberals are now noticing as well). And now the religious right was extremely powerful. If the election went to Bush, they would want payback (and they do). I could go on, but suffice it to say that I had become thoroughly disillusioned with the Republican Party in general and G. W. Bush in particular. (And, to top it all off, Bush seems incapable of admitting error, all too often mistaking stubbornness for being resolute.) I had come to the conclusion that it was just as bad to have Congress and the Presidency controlled by the Republican Party as it was when the Democrats were in control. I had also come to the conclusion that, as much as I detested Kerry, it was time to give someone else a chance.
We all know how that turned out. Nonetheless, Inauguration Day always brings me a sense of hope and renewal, even if it is a re-elected President taking the oath of office—and even if it is a President that I didn't vote for, like this year or Clinton's second Inauguration in 1997. Even now, I hope that Bush will somehow make up for the screwups of his first term. I hope that he will manage to figure out a way to get us out of the mess in Iraq that he got us into and do so while actually leaving a democracy there. I hope he figures out a way to keep his promise and cut the deficit in half. In short, I'm hoping for the best but can't help expecting the worst.
No doubt my sister, if she ever reads this post will again tell me that I'm turning into a liberal. That will probably never happen, but I certainly have moved a bit more towards the center than I used to be (and center-right isn't such a bad place to be). Ronald Reagan once said of the Democratic Party, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. It left me." Until the Republican Party goes back to fiscal responsibility and the influence of the fundamentalist Christian wing is curbed, the same could be said of the Republican Party and me.