Four years ago, I voted for John McCain, more out of fear of what Barack Obama would do than out of enthusiastic support for the Arizona senator. I was more energized by his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, which I know will appall a good number of folks on the left and right, who continue to believe Governor Palin was some kind of ultra-conservative nincompoop with not enough knowledge or experience to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
The criticisms of Palin now seem silly, though, when we watch the current vice president go from gaffe to gaffe, with no one asking the serious question: is this just his way or is something else going on that should disqualify him for office? I'm posing that question in the most charitable way, not as a snide or snarky criticism.
My 2008 lack of enthusiasm for the Republican nominee was shared by many, obviously. So I turned my attention to the new president, and I will admit it in front of all my conservative pals: I was hopeful. He was America's first African-American president. He had a young, beautiful family. He seemed to bring new promise to the country. Maybe he'd bring us all together.
And what could conservatives offer anyway? The previous president had committed us to two wars (which I'd supported) that were now dragging on with vague results. He'd overspent. And, what really bothered me: he hadn't effectively communicated how important his good proposals were, leaving the messaging field to his many opponents, afflicted with a feverish Bush Derangement Syndrome that dominated news cycles.
I was an education reform advocate at the time, and I liked many aspects of No Child Left Behind. But Bush wasn't good at defending that law to critics within and outside his party, and it made people like me feel as if we were alone fighting that battle, without a leader.
George W. Bush, from what most accounts say, is a very good man. But he didn't seem to realize that when he "turned the other cheek" in the face of criticism, he was passing on a chance to defend his supporters, who needed him to be stalwart and vocal in the face of our mutual adversaries.
So I was ready for a change, any change. And I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama with great excitement, even though I'd voted for the other guy.
But it didn't take long for that excitement to fade into disappointment as reality set in. The reality was this: a young, new United States Senator with little experience at the national level would have to be exceptionally talented or surrounded by an exceptionally talented team to navigate the tricky political currents of Washington, DC. The president quickly demonstrated he was neither that gifted nor surrounded by a particularly gifted group of advisers.
For the first two years of his term, his party controlled Congress. Yet he struggled mightily to find consensus on a health care bill that was so complex and ill-conceived even the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi let slip that they had to "pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." She may have walked back that remark, but it was emblematic of the confusion and lack of leadership Americans, both left and right, were witnessing--the bill was massive and complicated, and the president had had trouble getting it accepted even by his own party members.
At least on the foreign policy side of the equation, I breathed more easily. Well, for a time. You see, as the Middle East erupted, I came to be grateful that Sen. McCain wasn't Commander-in-Chief. Sen. McCain, a brave and loyal military man himself, seemed, to me at least, a bit too swift to suggest American involvement that could lead to boots on the ground. Who knows what he would have done had he been president? I was no different than the rest of America at that point: war weary. I was content to have a noninterventionist president, even if his policies were benignly feckless.
However, they might not have been so "benign" after all, as the September 11--a day that will live in infamy-- attack on the Benghazi consulate seems to indicate.
In April 2004, Condoleezza Rice, then assistant to the president for national security affairs, testified to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States that al Qaeda had been at war with us before we even recognized it as such (emphasis mine):
Long before that day (September 11, 2001), radical, freedom-hating terrorists declared war on America and on the civilized world. The attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, the rise of al Qaeda and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the attacks on American installations in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 -- these and other atrocities were part of a sustained, systematic campaign to spread devastation and chaos, and to murder innocent Americans. The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them.
As more details about the Benghazi attack come out, one question stands out amidst the fog of "war": why was the White House so quick to blame the attack on an obscure video when reports suggest the administration was receiving news that it could have been a terrorist attack?
My gratitude that a reflexive interventionist wasn't president has now been replaced with fears that a president unwilling to confront the truth of terrorism was sitting in the Oval Office instead. As Rice pointed out, previous attacks escalated over the years, starting with attacks on our interests abroad, before they culminated in the horror of 9/11. What's next? Will we be ready?
Beyond these big issues of national security and a massive health care overhaul is the litany of disappointments that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, repeats in his campaign message: high unemployment, high dependency on food stamp programs, high deficit, high regulations that stifle business and job growth.
President Obama was hired to tackle the economic problems. He has not done so, nor has he offered anything that isn't "more of the same"for the next four years. I know his team blames "obstructionist Republicans" for lack of meaningful progress, but this stubborn fact remains: his party had control of government for two years, and he didn't even come close to solving the problem during that time. And he's shown a spectacular disinterest in solving the problem of entitlement program spending, despite convening a "National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform" (aka Simpson-Bowles).
But paying attention to Simpson-Bowles, perhaps even trying to enact suggestions from it, would have been a steep hill for the president to climb, pitting him against a large portion of his party, who view entitlement programs as sacrosanct. Changing these programs, even to save them, is viewed with suspicion and derision.
Liberals often portray themselves as the party of compassion, pointing at Republicans as wealth- and greed-lovers who want to give tax cuts to the rich while throwing granny over the cliff to cut Medicare.
It always surprises me how easily some Democrats embrace those images, not realizing that it might say something extremely unflattering about themselves that they swallow the notion that they are more righteous on the issue of poverty and helping the needy than their Republican brethren. They seem to forget that we are not talking about personal compassion when we discuss public policy. They are free to give as much or as little of their time and treasure as they want to charitable organizations to help the poor, and no mean-spirited Scrooge--whatever party he might belong to-- will hold a gun to their heads to stop them.
No, when we discuss compassion in terms of public policy, we're really discussing how much of our neighbors' money are we going to forcibly confiscate to go to programs to help the poor. One can argue that there is no compassion in taking money from others, no matter how wealthy you think they are. One can also argue there's no compassion in ignoring financial issues that will affect future generations and programs for the needy, as well.
Even some Democrats get this, such as William Saletan of Slate, who, although voting for Obama, had this to say about Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan (emphasis mine):
Ryan refutes the Democratic Party’s bogus arguments. He knows that our domestic spending trajectory is unsustainable and that liberals who fail to get it under control are leading their constituents over a cliff, just like in Europe. Eventually, you can’t borrow enough money to make good on your promises, and everyone’s screwed. Ryan understands that the longer we ignore the debt crisis and postpone serious budget cuts—the liberal equivalent of denying global warming—the more painful the reckoning will be. There’s nothing compassionate about that kind of irresponsibility.
By choosing budget-cutter Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney demonstrated he understands the importance of addressing our debt crisis. Ryan, seen as a political lightning rod to some, was a bold choice. It took political courage.
I will admit I was not an early Romney supporter. I didn't like the fact that, as governor of Massachusetts, he'd championed a health care bill similar to the president's. I didn't like the fact that he seemed more a pragmatist than a principled man. But I've come to believe he is a principled pragmatist, a problem-solver and, as a Republican governor in the deep blue state of Massachusetts, a good negotiator who had to learn how to work with the other team to get things done.
And, ironically, after four years of the hope-and-change president, Mitt Romney seems to be the one with the hopeful message this year, the "yes, we can" attitude, while the spectacularly tone-deaf team of the president harps on Bain, Big Bird, binders, bayonets, messages with creepy sexual innuendos, and...revenge voting.
Those who know me won't be surprised I'm voting for Mitt Romney. But they might be surprised to learn that I'm now doing it with hope, excitement and enthusiasm, emotions I didn't feel four years ago when I checked off the box for John McCain.