Cover Story

A sad Democrat votes

Why I cast my first vote for a GOP president

Issue: "President Bush?," Nov. 18, 2000

The Gen-X blond standing behind the Democratic Party placards gave me a tired smile election morning as I headed into my polling place a few miles from the D.C. Beltway. Vote for the Democratic Party, said the signs. Not this time, sister. I smiled back, sort of. It was a sad smile. I'm a Democrat and have been all my life. That used to be a normal thing for people who grew up in middle-class Bible Belt homes. But I cast my first vote today for a Republican candidate for president. Why? Because Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania is dead and I can't write in his name anymore, that's why. He's the old-guard Catholic Democrat who was banned from the 1992 Democratic National Convention floor, the man who told his party's platform hearings: "The national Democratic Party has embraced abortion on demand. I believe this position is wrong in principle and out of the mainstream of our party's historic commitment to protecting the powerless.... Abortion is the ultimate violence. Abortion on demand has, in my judgment, contributed significantly to an environment in our country in which life has become very cheap." Powerful words, coming just a few years before Columbine High School and so, so much more. Writing in the name "Robert Casey" every four years got me through the 1990s. But his battles with a broken heart finally ended. Right, I am one of them, that tiny circle of culturally conservative, pro-life Democrats. We hold our meetings in telephone booths. We get sweaty palms listening to the country-club Republicans and the Religious Right leaders, even though we agree with the latter on many, but not all, of the moral issues that keep causing earthquakes in American politics. Back in the 1980s, we even dared to think that the rise of the new Southern Democrats held out the promise of our party taking a centrist position on moral and cultural issues. You remember the new Southern Democrats, the ones with pro-life or moderately pro-life voting records-people like Al Gore of Tennessee. But that's an old story. Let me be candid. I didn't vote for George W. Bush because I am convinced that he is genuinely pro-life. I have no idea whether he will, in fact, spend any of his precious political poker chips, when push comes to shove, to try to stop abortions or to help the women who are ensnared in crisis pregnancies in a society that mainly wishes they would go away. I also think Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney are going to march to a basically libertarian drum when it comes to other cultural issues. I think they will be in the middle of the road, watching the polling data, when it comes to sexuality. They aren't going to stomp on gays and lesbians, even though there will be howls from the Lifestyle Left if any efforts are made to withhold the government's blessings from active support of their causes in the arts, education, and law. I think the Religious Right can prepare to be disappointed, along with the Lifestyle Left. And I think Mr. Bush's court appointees will be much like his picks in Texas-country-club conservatives who come out of the mainstream of American law schools. They'll probably split 50-50 on the divisive moral issues, just like the folks selected by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. So why did I break down and vote for George W. Bush? Here's why: I am convinced that the biggest issue of the next generation of American life will be free speech, free speech for people who even want to have the right to stand up in public and take conservative stands on issues linked to culture, education, morality, and faith. Free speech for people who want to protest what they cannot embrace. I think Mr. Bush will have some political incentive-at the level of courts and legislation-to at least allow moral and cultural conservatives the option of making their case in the public square. I think he will stop the government, for example, from harassing the homeschool movement. I think there is some chance that he may allow culturally conservative parents other educational options, such as school vouchers for the poor. He may even lead some private-sector efforts to promote educational alternatives. Why? It's in his political interest to do so. I think there is some chance that his approach to government cooperation with faith-based social agencies may allow these groups to retain their free-speech rights when it comes to doctrine and evangelism. I think he may allow Baptists and Catholics and Jews and Muslims to receive tax breaks and to cooperate with some government programs without having to become Unitarian-Universalists, when it comes to matters of sin and salvation. I'm not sure about this, but I think he will have some political incentive to allow the painful culture wars to continue in modern America. This only seems appropriate since-outside of the ranks of the media and academic elites-this country seems to be divided about 51-49 percent on virtually any moral or cultural issue that matters. Free speech is painful, but it beats all the alternatives. Let open debates and free speech continue. Perhaps even in the Democratic Party.

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