The Common Good

GOP Primaries and Old Country Buffet

Sojomail - January 12, 2012

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 GUEST COMMENTARY by Tim King

GOP Primaries and Old Country Buffet

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If the GOP primaries were like Old Country Buffet, I’d be happy.

Think about it. There wouldn’t be so much money involved and we could pick only the stuff we liked and ignore the rest.

And of course, everyone knows the basic rules of smorgasbord grazing, such as you can’t get decent sushi in the Midwest or proper social conservatives from Massachusetts.

I’ll make my point before I take this analogy too far. A record number of Americans — 41 percent — now identify as political independents.

They aren’t very satisfied with the current menu and, if given the option, would prefer a buffet of policies and priorities from which to choose and cast their votes accordingly.

This is especially true of our younger generation and lower income folks.

While Mitt Romney won New Hampshire, Ron Paul scored among voters in the 18-29 demographic, with a strong plurality of 46 percent. Romney’s share of the voters increased with age.

This pattern was also true for income. Paul won the crowd whose incomes are under $30,000 a year (likely a lot of young folks in there) and Romney’s share of the vote increased with income. In fact, the only demographic Romney won a majority of the vote in was those earning more than $200,000 a year.

During a visit to Old Country Buffet, I like to throw beef teriyaki stir fry, spaghetti with marinara sauce, mashed potatoes, and fruit salad made entirely from grapes and honeydew melon all onto one plate. The culinary elites might peer down their noses at me, but I give it no mind.

So at the risk of offending the sensibilities of those with more refined political tastes, I present to you my own GOP sampler.

First, I would start with Romney’s legislative history on health care. No matter what the guy says now, Massachusetts was the first state to pass universal health care and it was a bipartisan plan. The program has been both popular and successful, serving as a model for national reform.

Next, I would add John Huntsman’s stance on climate change. He has been willing to say that, when 98 out 100 climate scientists agree that there is a human cause to climate change, we should probably listen. And Huntsman's challenged his entire party by saying, “The minute the Grand Old Party becomes the Anti-Science Party, we have a huge problem.”

Then I would add some of Rick Santorum’s work on foreign aid. He’s been a long-time proponent of our country’s moral obligation to fight pandemic diseases and direct effective poverty-focused foreign aid to some of the world’s neediest people. To his credit, the former senator was willing to say so during Republican debates, while many of his colleagues were pandering by making unrealistic claims about how much they were going to cut the foreign aid budget.

After that, I would get a smattering of Paul’s readiness to bring our troops home. He was against both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the beginning and doesn’t seem to have blinked since. He’s so far right on military intervention that he’s left of President Obama.

Lastly, I would make a chutney of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich and throw on a heaping spoonful. Perry was willing to extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants and Gingrich stood up for a “humane” immigration policy that allowed for a pathway to citizenship.

Both Perry and Gingrich have adopted a stronger critique of the free market than Occupy Wall Street protesters… as long as it’s limited to Mitt Romney’s involvement in the free market. I can’t say it’s consistent, but I still wouldn’t mind it as a nice garnish to round out my supper plate.

Alas, the primaries are not the political equivalent of Old Country Buffet, and the general election will be even more limited in choices. Also, unlike Old Country Buffet, the primaries are going to be expensive. Already we are seeing millions of dollars flowing into and pouring out of campaign war chests as well as the political action committees that support various candidates.

The political menu we've been offered is one of imperfect people running for office in an imperfect system. While I believe there is much room for improvement, we will always be at least somewhat dissatisfied with the options from which we must choose.

Politicians and their offices are by their very nature entities that are limited. Complete satisfaction should not be expected. The full presence of justice and shalom will be present in the Kingdom, but never fully present in the here and now.

Just because more appetizing options don’t exist right now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start demanding them. Our political system may be stale and broken, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond fixing.

My younger sister Abby just voted in her first presidential primary earlier this week. I was proud. Voting is one of the first steps to becoming a responsible citizen.

But it’s not the only one.

Many of us look at our political choices come election time and feel frustrated that we are engaging the system only once every two or four years. When we turn our back, the menu is set and agenda determined.

Disengagement or simply sitting out an election cycle will only make the problem worse.

Voting should be the appetizer course to, not the sum total, of our political engagement.

Tim King is communications director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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