Independent voters are variously beloved or maligned, courted or ignored, depending on how the political pendulum swings.
Lately, as partisanship approaches nuclear fission, independents are held in contempt by some who see them as not fully engaged, or as wishy-washy or ignorant. A recent story about the respective strategies of President George W. Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry noted that both were focusing on their party bases rather than wasting time on swing voters.
That's a mistake and I should know. I'm one of those registered Independents, who may or may not vote for Bush despite a written record that would suggest I'm all about George.
It's a fact that I have supported the war in Iraq and agree with some, but not all, other Bush policies. It is not a fact that I routinely vote Republican. As I say in the introduction of a book I hope to finish before my funeral arrangements are complete, I'm no more comfortable with Jerry Falwell than I am with Michael Moore, except that I suspect Falwell has better table manners.
In my home state of South Carolina, I cast only one Republican ballot in the last state election. I voted for John McCain in the primary four years ago. I long ago voted for Jimmy Carter instead of Gerald Ford, but not Mondale and never for Bill Clinton. In my youth, I temporarily lost my father's financial largesse (and apparently my mind) when I supported George McGovern and exercised the poor judgment of saying so in polite company and, more important, in contradiction of the generous fellow then paying my tuition.
More to the immediate point, I may vote for John Kerry come November. Then again, I may not. Am I indecisive? Wishy-washy? Disengaged?
No, I'm merely undecided and suspect that I'm not atypical of other voters who are neither Republican nor Democrat, but first and foremost American. I am a consummate post-9/11 American who, despite interest in other issues, will vote for the individual who I believe - based on what transpires between now and November - will best ensure that I'm around to vote again in 2008.
Will it be Bush and team, or Kerry et al? There's still plenty of time for much to change. Another attack, good news (or bad) from Iraq, saber rattling or diplomatic intentions from other questionable states. At the moment, Bush seems to have things well in hand, though it's impossible to ignore America's damaged unity as well as our tarnished international standing.
Of course, we also know that we'll be beloved again the moment our troops are needed to clean up Old Europe's 9/11, should the cards fall that way.
As for which man I can tolerate listening to for the next four years, the answer is neither. If Bush's tongue-tangling yokelism keeps my thumb close to the mute button, Kerry's first-person oracular, in which even the insignificant is endowed with gravitas, sends me lurching for the corkscrew. I only drink, as critic George Jean Nathan once put it, to make other people seem more interesting.
In saner times, I wouldn't consider voting for the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, but these are not sane times. Any tilt toward Kerry now would be predicated on the possibility that changing the face in the White House might help secure our future by altering the tempo, muting our tom-toms and injecting a little, dare I say the word, 'nuance' into our national persona.
Bush-bashing, disappointingly if not tragically, has taken on a life of its own such that internal partisanship now feels almost as threatening to our survival as our external enemies. We're ripe for a terrorist attack, yet we've become so stridently self-absorbed and distracted by partisan one-upmanship that you begin to wonder whether anyone's manning the barricades.
The growth of the independent voter bloc in recent months, including some renegades from the Republican side, may be a product of that understanding. The gotcha spirit that distorts truth in the name of Our Team is tiresome, childish, counterproductive and potentially deadly.
What adult wants to waste another minute on the rantings of conventioneers in our midst?
When it comes to partisanship, no side gets a pass. Everyone's guilty of Me-ism at the expense of what may be best for the country. When the far left finds its Lancelot in the dishonest propagandizing of a Michael Moore - and the far right finds solace in "At least we don't behead people" - we know that the level of discourse has been lowered beyond what civilization can safely tolerate.
The stakes are too high to leave politics to partisans. Independents have figured that out.