Published on Friday, July 9, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Bush Loses a Lifelong Republican
by Joan Ryan
My parents, like all parents who grew up in New York, live in Florida. They have voted down-the-line Republican in every election since they came of age. Despite their shared Catholicism, they couldn't stand John or Bobby Kennedy. Don't even talk to them about Ted. They still believe Nixon got a raw deal. Needless to say, they supported the Bush brothers in their respective elections, George for president and Jeb for governor.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the 2004 election. George Bush is managing to do what no politician has done before him -- drive my mother and father and others like them from their well-worn seats on the GOP bus.
"I can't vote for him,'' my father said as we sat in the Florida room of their adult-community condo. I nearly dropped the bottle of beer I had pressed to my forehead. ("What, you're hot?'' my mother had asked. The air conditioning was indeed on, as she assured me it was, set to a frosty 80 degrees.)
"He completely underestimated how the Iraqis would respond,'' my father said. We generally avoid politics when I visit. I'm from the gay-marrying, war- protesting, Michael Moore-loving republic of the San Francisco Bay Area. We tend to limit our current-events discussions to the Giants' chances in the National League West.
"They thought all these people were going to jump up and praise them,'' my father said. "There have been too many mistakes. We're supposed to have control over there, and our boys keep getting killed. It's a mishmash. The whole thing is a mishmash. He's backed himself into a corner by trying to liberate a country, and the people don't want you to be liberating them.''
His anger is about more than a difference of opinion with the president about how and why he waged this particular war. There is a corrosive quality to this presidency that has eaten away at what my father believes his country stands for. Anecdotal evidence suggests he is not alone. Republican leaders, however, will tell you the faithful aren't wavering. As evidence, they point to a bipartisan poll conducted for National Public Radio in May that found just 6 percent of Republicans say they plan to vote for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
But the poll means little. It asked the wrong question. My father would also have told them he doesn't plan to vote for Kerry. He'd cut off his finger before using it to cast a vote for a limousine liberal like Kerry. But his dislike for Kerry does not diminish his disillusionment with Bush. He won't vote for either of them, he says, leaving the top lines of his ballot blank for the first time in his life.
"Maybe I'll write in your mother's name,'' he said.
America's bloody entry into Iraq, with the torture and beheadings and charred bodies and gushing torrents of taxpayer money, is prompting a nation to take stock of who it is and what it believes in. I want to think that the war is diluting the blues and reds on the national political maps, that people are sloughing off their color-coded cloaks as Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and recognizing the common ideals that bind us as Americans.
Those ideals -- among them, compassion, freedom, diplomacy, liberty, rule of law -- have been battered by a president who still can't produce a compelling reason to have sent our men and women into battle against a country that never attacked us. He tosses aside civil liberties as if they were Kleenex, denies basic due process even to American citizens -- a conceit the Supreme Court recently judged unacceptable -- and believes the Geneva Conventions apply only when he says they do.
My father has always enjoyed quoting the late Al Capp, the creator of the comic strip "Li'l Abner,'' who defended his conservatism in the 1960s by saying that he was and always had been a moderate. He only seemed conservative, he said, because the rest of the country had shifted to the left. There was a code of living in Capp's world, and in my father's. They believed in consistency bordering on stasis, even if it meant becoming a walking anachronism in your own lifetime.
My father and others like him who have always been more or less middle-of- the-road Republicans now feel out of step with this Republican president. It is not because their own ideals have shifted but because their president's have.
"It's terrible that in this country of so many good people,'' my father said, "how an election can come down to the lesser of two evils. You have to vote this time for who will do the least harm. Not the most good, but the least harm.''
Sometimes we settle for a president who isn't inspiring or visionary or all that brilliant. But we should never settle for one who diminishes America by flouting its core ideals. The election is four months away. My father could change his mind and, in the end, vote for Bush.
But I'm hoping my mother's name shows up on at least one ballot in Palm Beach County.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle