Presidential campaigns in the U.S. are weird. Okay, let’s be honest, politics everywhere is weird, but the way Americans choose candidates has a particularly amazing number of eccentricities. We choose candidates through a patchwork systems of caucuses and primaries, which also generate the delegates who will eventually write state and national party platforms through an arcane series of district, county, and state meetings and conventions. And sometimes the arcane becomes literal (such as the time our state’s Republican party platform had multiple planks condemning witchcraft). Politics is supposed to be about compromise and finding solutions that a majority of people can get behind, which makes things very difficult for people who expect a candidate to agree with them on absolutely everything in order to get their support. The more voters involved, the less likely it is that you’re going to get your first choice. Which isn’t a pleasant realization. As I well know…
The first election I was able to vote in was 1980—Carter vs Reagan. And besides the fact that I thought Reagan was a dangerous loon (and the Republican Party was too obviously under the sway of the Moral Majority, e.g. the segregationist evangelicals), I actually liked President Carter’s style and policies. I wasn’t able to attend my local precinct caucus that year—the caucuses happened on a Tuesday evening back then, and I had to work. I was a freshman in college working two part-time jobs at the time. So I didn’t take part in affirming the President for renomination. I remember that there was a very vocal John Anderson contingent on campus.
So Reagan’s election was the first in what would be a string of very disappointing election nights for me.
I did caucus in 1984. I was totally in the tank for John Glenn. Looking back on his campaign and his career in the Senate, I’m not sure now why I was so convinced that he was the man to beat Reagan. I was the only person at my caucus meeting who supported Glenn, and I did a horrible job trying to convince anyone to switch to my guy. We also had an older gentleman at the meeting who kept insisting that we should vote for Senator Jackson… who had passed away about a year before. And I started to feel as if most of the other caucus goers thought that the guy who wanted to vote for the dead guy was saner than me. Our precinct broke hard for Gary Hart, who won our state that night. Less than a week after losing our state and a bunch of state primaries that happened the same day, Glenn withdrew from the race, and I found myself not very enthusiastic about any of our remaining candidates until Mondale gave his acceptance speech at the convention. I really wanted Reagan to lose, but I had heard enough of my neighbors say variants of the sentence, “There’s no way I’m voting for a man who picked a woman for his veep!” that I wasn’t completely surprised that Reagan won our state, as well as the national election, in a landslide.
In 1988 I was absolutely positive that Senator Paul Simon was the man to win, and I spoke enthusiastically enough at the precinct meeting (where Simon came in second, behind Dukakis), that I was selected as a delegate to the district caucuses a month later. I was so excited, I called Grandpa to tell him. He laughed and told me he was a Simon delegate to his district caucus. We both were very disappointed when Simon withdrew later. After the convention, I was more enthusiastic for Dukkakis’ running mate, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentson. And a lot of democratic-leaning acquaintances seemed to be equally underwhelmed with Dukkakis. Also, just as four years earlier I’d heard a lot of misogynist comments about the Democratic ticket, in ’88 I kept hearing, “I’m not racist, but I’m afraid of what kind of promises Dukkakis had to make to Jesse Jackson to get his endorsement” to know that Bush was probably going to win.
It was a scary year in my state: the Republican caucuses had gone hard for televangelist Pat Robertson, and the far right Christianist delegates put into the system began a really hard pull into the lunatic fringe that would reach it’s peak a few cycles later. It was this surge of Robertson delegates that caused the less radical Republicans to push for a state Presidential Primary, in order to decrease the chances of repeat.
In 1992 I was determined that my party would select a winner. There was a state primary that year, but the Democratic Party had chosen to continue selecting all of its delegates through the caucus system. The Republicans picked half theirs from the precinct caucuses, and half from the statewide primary vote. I caucused for Massachusetts Senator Tsongas. I really wanted him to win, but I was also fond of Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. I thought Clinton was a bit too conservative, but he was also obviously a policy wonk, and since I’m more than a bit of that kind of nerd myself, he appealed to me. My precinct went really hard for Tsongas, and I was sent as an alternate Tsongas delegate to the district caucus, as well as an alternate delegate to the County convention. I went to the next two levels, and though it was an exhausting couple of days dominated by a lot more boring procedural votes than I had expected, I enjoyed it.
By the time Clinton clinched the nomination, I was over my disappointment that once again my first choice hadn’t made it. Clinton was the first Presidential candidate I voted for who actually won the Whitehouse. And I was very happy…
I was still an enthusiastic Clinton voter in 1996, even though I was pretty disappointed that Clinton had lost the battle to allow queers to serve openly in the military, signing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into law as what was supposed to be a compromise. And I was quite pissed that Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act just a couple months before the election, even though he tried to spin it as a way to prevent a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. But the other party wanted to do so much worse to queer people, there wasn’t really a choice.
Locally, 1996 was when the rightwing nutjobs reached peak crazy in the state Republican party. They nominated a woman who literally listed God at the top of her campaign organization chart filed with the Public Disclosure Commission. She vowed to only hire and appoint “godly” people to staff and other state positions. The state party platform had more than one plank condemning witchcraft—one vowed to remove the “insidious promotion of witchcraft, lesbianism, feminism, homosexuality, and evolution” from public school curriculum. That’s right, the state party was taken over by people who believed public school textbooks were pushing witchcraft. And who also thought that homosexuality didn’t include lesbians, I guess? There were other horrible proposals and candidates on the state ballot that year, but fortunately, most of them didn’t win.
The 2000 election was one I had trouble getting enthusiasm for. I liked Gore the policy wonk, but he didn’t have Clinton’s charm. And well, Clinton was already slightly right of center (that’s right, Clinton was not liberal), and Gore seemed possibly even more conservative. But Bradley was even less personally appealing, and while his policies were at least slightly left of center, he just didn’t come across as the kind of person who could actually convince Congress to go along with his ideas.
But, besides being even more anti-gay than the previous year’s Republican platform, Bush looked like a disaster in cowboy boots. So I supported Gore and hoped for the best.
Bush and Cheney proved to be an even bigger disaster than they had appeared, particularly when they hit on the strategy in the 2004 election of placing anti marriage equality measures on state ballots for the explicit purpose of driving conservative voters to the polls.
Policy-wise, I was really pulling for Congressman Kucinich on the Democratic side, though I didn’t have much faith in his ability to take on the Karl Rove mudslinging machine. John Kerry proved inadequate to the job, as well. So, we got four more years of the Shrub.
2008 was different. For the first time in several cycles I was extremely happy with the Democratic field. Make no mistake, I was in all the way for Obama early. But Hillary Clinton was my second choice, and I would have been perfectly happy with her as the candidate. When we went to our local caucus, my husband was firmly in favor of Hillary, and I was adamant for Obama. Another friend of ours who is also in our district was also pro-Hillary. But I and the other Obama-supporters made our pitch. One of the things that made me prefer Obama was that, while Hillary was all right talking about gay rights to gay audiences, she glossed it over elsewhere. Obama had de-vovled on gay married (ten years earlier, as an Illinois state legislator he had been pro-marriage equality; he backtracked once he was running a national campaign), however, when addressing an African-American Christian pastor’s meeting, he had talked about the importance of the African-American community embrace their queer brothers and sister and fight for civil rights for everyone. That wasn’t an audience that was happy to hear that message, but it was one of the communities that could come around to the idea. That convinced my the Obama was a leverager, rather than a triangulator (which both Clintons are known for).
And our caucus wound up sending an all-Obama delegation to the next level. So Barack Obama was the first candidate who was my first choice from early on, who actually went on to win.
This year, well, this year Bernie was my first choice. Even though people call him a Socialist, he’s not as liberal as I am, but he’s a whole lot closer than anyone else who has a shadow of a chance of winning. That said, Hillary has been my second choice all along. Yeah, she’s more conservative than I would like. She has a tendency to triangulate and compromise with conservatives more often then I want. But she’s on the right side of history regarding women’s issues, queer rights, and a lot of other things that mean the difference (literally) between life and death for many of us. And during her time in the Senate she was known for pushing bills and policies based on the concerns of her constituents in a way few other Senators did.
So, I’m not getting my first choice. But I sure as heck am not stupid enough to think that not voting for her is a good idea. Voting is always about making choices, weighing the good against the back, and deciding which options aren’t always best, but which are good enough.
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