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Threw away my vote for president again the other day, just like I always do. Shit-canned this one on Howard Dean via absentee ballot, right before I moved back to Mexico.
It was the night before the morning it dawned on everybody that Dean was unelectable.
Remember that day? By the end of it, everybody with a cable box, a computer modem, a newspaper subscription or an asshole was pontificating about the intricacies of the national political landscape they were carefully surveying—no matter that fewer and fewer of them can even mow their own back yards anymore. Weird how so many of them reached the very same conclusion simultaneously—not to vote for Dean because they didn't want to throw their votes away. Fascinating how prescient that theory is: you deduce a guy is unelectable, you don't vote for him—and then you watch his lack of votes keep him from being elected . . . unless he is George W. Bush.
My first presidential election was in 1980, which makes me old enough to remember lots of days when the energy of an upstart candidate with a passionate message and an idealistic following had been analyzed and strategized into extinction. Every four years, I'm confronted by the demoralizing philosophy of political practicality, which insinuates that if I mark my ballot according to my highest hopes, I might as well stuff my vote into the wastebasket as the ballot box.
Looks like that's what I've done. In six presidential election years, I've never voted for the winner—not in the primary, not in the general election. On the other hand, would I really want to be bragging that I voted for Ronald Reagan? Or either of the George Bushes?
But my dilemma has gone deeper than that. I've rarely been able to vote for their principal opponents, either. Walter Mondale? Michael Dukakis? Do I really want to be that kind of weenie?
It's a tough call, and my choice has differed in its details every time. Like the couple of times I voted for Jesse Jackson and the couple more I voted for Jerry Brown. One time, I voted for George McGovern—a kind of homage to the first political campaign I ever worked, as a high school senior in 1972, against Nixon. There's another election in there I can't remember who I voted for. And another one I can hardly believe—when I voted for John McCain in California's first open primary in 2000; he seemed like the only guy who was telling the truth.
Last time, I voted for Ralph Nader. That's the election that came closest to destroying my faith in the American voting process, and not just because hanging chads, butterfly ballots, polling-place intimidation and a Supreme Court coup collaborated to "elect" the United States' first mentally retarded president. The incredible part is how quickly everybody set aside this corrupt challenge to the pivot point of our democracy. The demoralizing part is where the blame was placed instead—on the 2.7 percent of us who voted their conscience and voted for Nader.
True, Nader took 97,488 votes in Florida, a state where Bush prevailed over Al Gore by 537 after that contested—and never completed—recount. But isn't there more to learn from the 300,000 registered Democrats who voted for Bush in Florida?
More to my point, isn't there something to be learned by the way Gore's campaign team responded to Nader's threat, which certainly did not sneak up on them? Instead of tapping into the passion and hope of Nader supporters, Gore tried to play on their fears—that a Nader vote would mean a Bush presidency. Gore was a candidate with so little real hope or integrity himself that he counted more on people voting againstBush than forhim. Yeah, that's really the kind of president we want.
Of course, as so many of my liberal friends told me, Gore would have been better than Bush. I don't doubt it. But then they told me it was irresponsible, counterproductive, the equivalent of collaborating with the enemy to have voted for Nader when the election hung in the balance. I've had to think about that. And then, when the bombs began to fall on Iraq last year, they told me I was accountable for every life that was being extinguished in that shocking and awful rain of U.S. terrorism. They said, "Hope you're happy now, Mr. Peace & Love." I wasn't.
But it's not as though the Democrats showed I could depend on them to defend Americans or the human race from Bush's policies. Democrats did not oppose the war in Iraq, and they did not oppose the anti-constitutional right-wing politics written into the Patriot Act. Under Bill Clinton, we got NAFTA, the WTO, a heartless attack on social welfare and a doubling of the U.S. prison population.
So, anyway, here came Howard Dean, the first guy to call Bush on the senseless aggression in Iraq—and to call the Democrats on their lack of meaningful opposition. Dean came up through an ingenious Internet fund-raising scheme, and he rolled up his sleeves, and he growled, and he got my attention. Then he got my support. Amazingly, for a few weeks, he was the man to beat—leading in the polls and in the campaign war chest.
It was pretty heady stuff. I'm not accustomed to being in the camp of the frontrunner. But, of course, he's not the frontrunner anymore.
Turns out that Dean is going to be a less-significant candidate than the other losers I've supported. Jesse Jackson won nearly 10 million total votes and eight primaries in his tries for the White House in 1984 and 1988. When Jerry Brown ran for president in 1992, he beat Bill Clinton in six primaries and was the only other candidate to make it all the way to the convention.
John Kerry is going to be nominated by the Democrats. Okay, good enough. Hope he beats Bush this fall. But we know that Kerry is going to be nominated before California or New York or most of the rest of the country have even had a chance to vote. We know it six months before the convention. That doesn't seem so good. That seems like an outcome manipulated by the real political landscapers, who plant this seed of Dean's "unelectability" in the public mind as a substitute for real issues and real passion and real integrity—and real hope.
What's the use in voting, anyway?
Maybe as a prayer. This is still a sacred thing, this right to choose—this opportunity to express our hopes for what we could make of this government we have invented. I want the world to know my hopes, and this election is the only way I have to register them. I want to leave the polling place with a clear conscience, the way I used to leave the confessional.
But if I concede my hopes and vote according to my fears—my dread that the candidate who best speaks for me doesn't have a chance, anyway—then what have I trashed?
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