Originally, I planned on a question as the title for this installment of the column — Can I Afford to Be Independent? — and I would like to acknowledge that the idea has been rocking and rolling around in my head for some time now. This is not just my response to the first presidential debate, which truth be told wasn’t a debate at all since one of the guys behind the podium was decidedly not in the mood to debate or discuss much of anything that voters might have been concerned about.
No, I’ve been thinking about the idea of independence possibly since the “debate” in Congress that led to the passage of what we now call “Obamacare.” What bothered me then, and what continues to stick in my foot like a nagging splinter that’s gotten infected, is that the terms of the debate over health care started off all wrong and got worse as the process kept going. I voted for hope and change (and the guy preaching for these ideals, despite the fact that I never figured he would win) based on the crazy notion that what I was really casting a ballot for was leadership because that’s what was going to be necessary to achieve the goals outlined for the country’s future. Leadership that would curtail the rough tide of public opinion dividing the red and blue states; leadership and a bold vision that would unite us in much the same way that we come together during times of great hardships and/or national tragedies; leadership that would be willing to sacrifice personal legacy for the sake of the nation’s future.
I didn’t want Carter (as much as I love the heart and soul of this great man) or Clinton (the rockstar President who I’ve never been able to convince myself belongs in the pantheon of the greats because, deep down, I’ve always assumed he cared more about politics than the policies or the people). The kind of leader I’ve always hoped for was someone a bit more practical, someone like Johnson. LBJ wasn’t Kennedy’s main man; he was chosen for VP because he brought Texas over to the Democrats. He also wasn’t some diehard liberal in love with the idea of civil rights. He simply came to realize that change was coming, and after Kennedy’s assassination, this was what the country needed, so he assumed a leadership role and got the votes necessary to get the legislation passed.
Leadership of that degree isn’t playing the system or a game. It’s not about polling the public or your close advisers for their feelings or sense of the going trend. You take a stand — yay or nay — and force your political opponents to defend their position. You risk getting smacked around by the other side behind closed doors and in front of the media, which today, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, would likely scare the bejesus out of even LBJ, but I tend to believe that if he were alive today, he would still go down swinging for the cause.
And that’s where I’m wavering in my support for President Obama and the Democrats. We still share many of the same core beliefs, although I’m finding myself to be a bit more progressive than I would have ever assumed, but the lack of leadership vexes me to no end. Going back to that health care debate, what happened to the idea of crafting a position, a starting point for debate rather than throwing the issue out before both houses of Congress like it were little more than raw meat on the bone. No wonder we’re hard-pressed to find anyone who is truly happy with the results; there’s precious little of the substance left among the compiled scraps.
That’s not how LBJ would have handled health care.
Which leads me back to that question — the one about independence. It takes an independent spirit, a leader willing to buck the system. Damn the election cycle. You’ve got to be willing to do something, despite the risk. If our politicians aren’t willing to — and watching Romney’s totally unsubtle shift to the center after his hard right turn during the Republican primaries isn’t setting him up as a paragon of independent virtue either — then it comes down to individuals.
But can I embrace switching from the two-party options to an independent choice? Can I afford to vote for Gary Johnson (Libertarian) or Jill Stein (Green), candidates that probably aren’t even on the ballot in all 50 states, just to stand by a conviction? Is this really what all of those generations of my family who lived and died without the right to vote, even though they were nominally citizens of the United States, would have wanted?
I sure wish there was a right or wrong answer to that question.
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