My first political memory is asking my parents for whom they were voting for president in 1972, President Richard Nixon or Democrat George McGovern. “McGovern” my parents said. And just like that, at the age of six, I became a Democrat.
I am still a proud Democrat.
Wait, you ask. Isn’t this blog a repository for interesting, data-driven stories told with little-to-no subjective point-of-view?
Yes, it is. But sometimes personal backstory is necessary to provide context for later posts, especially if in one or more of those posts I question the actions of one of our major political parties.
Now, returning to the early 1970s…
My mother and I spent the summer of 1974 in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would drive down from suburban Philadelphia most weekends. One Thursday evening in August, I was watching TV in the small front parlor of the home of a family friend. That is how I watched President Nixon resign from the presidency “effective at noon tomorrow.” Not quite eight years old, I only partially understood what I was watching, though every adult’s somber expression told me it was something big.
I knew little about the new Republican President, Gerald Ford, but he seemed like a nice man. I still love the fact that he made his own toast in the White House kitchen. Being a Democrat, I rooted for Jimmy Carter to beat him in 1976, but not because of anything I disliked about Ford.
As a sidebar, I now view the 1976 presidential election as one in which the country would have won either way. Ford was—and Carter still is—a distinctly good and honorable man who tried his best to use the power of the federal government to improve people’s lives. I also think he was right to pardon Nixon: no other punishment would have hurt Nixon as much as resigning did, and the country was allowed to start to heal.
Three years later, a woman named Barbara Bush spoke to my middle school. She was campaigning for her husband George, who was running for president as a Republican. I was in 8th grade, and I was fascinated by learning about the liberal-conservative spectrum. While I was gravitating to uber-liberal Democrats like Jerry Brown (more than President Carter, or even Ted Kennedy), there was something about Bush I liked. His “voodoo economics” talk and strong support of something called Planned Parenthood made him seem like a true moderate, someone I could at least respect, if not always agree with.
Hold that thought for a moment.
Bush ended up becoming Ronald Reagan’s 1980 running mate. Despite reluctantly supporting Carter over Reagan (and John Anderson), we were devastated by the Republican landslide that November. But by April 1981, my Democratic mother was talking about how well her small carpet-cleaning business (which she had bought from its previous owner a year or so earlier, greatly improving our personal financial situation) was doing in the first few months of the Reagan Administration. For a time, it really did feel like we were making a fresh start from the turbulent 1970s.
Back home, Pennsylvania was narrowly electing a series of liberal-to-moderate Republicans who, again, I admired without always agreeing with them: Senator John Heinz in 1976 (even as Carter won Pennsylvania by 2.7 percentage points), Governor Richard Thornburgh in 1978, and Senator Arlen Specter in 1980. Heinz easily won reelection twice before dying in a plane crash in 1991 at the age of 52. Like most Pennsylvanians, I was deeply saddened by the loss of this good man. I met Senator Specter in 2003, when he reaffirmed his strong support for Title X (the federal funding program for family planning services) to my Family Planning Council colleagues and me. My mother loved Thornburgh for pushing funding for state-university partnerships to treat folks with mental retardation. My only sibling is an older sister, who has suffered from severe mental retardation since a few months after her birth and has lived in a wonderful state-funded Center for more than 40 years. In 1986, I voted for pro-choice Republican Bill Scranton for governor, still my only Republican vote. (Only with hindsight do I regret voting for Democrat John Silber over Republican Bill Weld for governor of Massachusetts in 1990.)
The 1988 presidential campaign was so banal that the Washington Post did not endorse either Bush or Michael Dukakis. Bush’s campaign sank to some particularly ugly depths (Willie Horton, flag-burning, demonizing liberals). The afternoon after Bush won, however, I watched President-elect Bush introduced James Baker as his nominee for Secretary of State. My surprised reaction was “wow, the governing Bush looks like an entirely different cat.” Other Bush Administration picks like Jack Kemp (HUD), Dick Darman (OMB), Thornburgh (Justice), Liddy Dole (Labor), and Brent Scowcroft (National Security Advisor) signaled to me a mature, less-ideological approach to governing.
The point of this stroll through the first half of my life is that as a strong partisan Democrat, I could still find common ground with many Republicans. On a personal level, one of my closest friends in high school was a staunch Republican who loved Reagan as much as I loved Walter Mondale. Mondale was my first presidential vote, in 1984, and still one of my proudest.
I plan to argue in a later post that something began to go haywire with the Republican Party right around Bush’s failed reelection campaign in 1992 and the subsequent Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994. I now feel that the party—with a few possible exceptions like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker—has become completely unhinged.
Until next time…