Voting is one of Americans' most precious rights and responsibilities. That's been driven home forcefully this year with the attention drawn to the Knox County Primary Election by the wretched performance of county government. But the Knox County Primary ballot also has boxes devoted to the presidential primary, where Tennessee voters may have some influence on the nominations of a Democrat and a Republican to meet on the General Election ballot this November.
Ordinarily, the county offices were considered secondary to the national offices. Incumbents had the inside track, relying on limited voter interest. Most of those have been pushed out of office, finally, by the state Supreme Court's finding that the term-limits provision, passed overwhelmingly in 1994 by county voters, was a legal, legitimate, and enforceable addition to the county's home-rule metropolitan charter, which was also ruled valid.
So, with scores of new candidates at the county level and unprecedented interest in those county races, the parties' presidential races have been relegated to a relative back seat for a change. An especially interesting outgrowth of that switch in priorities has been the failure of many voters—particularly first-time voters—to understand that they may only choose to vote on a single party's ballot. They cannot pick from more than one party's candidates, including those for presidential nominations.
In a jurisdiction that is predominantly Republican, such as Knox County, where many voters are disaffected from the Republican national administration and that party's current crop of candidates, that's particularly annoying. There are many voters who are conceding the presidency to whichever Democrat emerges with the nomination. But, with most of the contested county races being fought among Republican candidates, the voters are faced with a Hobson's choice. Help nominate a Democrat for president, or pick the most likely Republican candidates to succeed in reshaping a county government that has become wildly misshapen.
There is an answer to that dilemma that is not totally unpalatable. The Democratic Party front-runners, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, are both well qualified and well-suited to the office of the presidency. Former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards is slipping by the wayside, unless he's the surprise winner this Saturday in South Carolina. And none of the Republicans stand out in the same light, especially among fellow Republicans.
The GOP is torn asunder among John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani, who has yet to make a showing. Then there's Ron Paul, the populist demagogue. It ain't pretty.
Democrats are tied up in their own race. Otherwise they might cross over in the primaries and vote for Huckabee, or Romney, or even Paul, thinking they'd be easier to beat in the fall than either McCain or Giuliani, who have more moderate followings even though they protest that they are true conservatives.
For the record, there's no Republican, given the tragedy that the Bush presidency has become, who isn't beatable by one of the leading Democrats.
I've personally vacillated between Clinton and Obama over whom to support in the voting booth. In the end, although I believe Clinton would make an excellent president with a thorough understanding of the office and its responsibilities, I'm sidling again toward Obama, who impressed me most in the first place.
Clinton I view as the safer choice, for the reason that she is predictably mid-road among the Democrats and would view the office from a cold, if not icy, perspective. She earned immeasurable respect as first lady by the dignity with which she handled her husband's foibles, and she's been a distinguished senator in representing the state of New York. She also has the added value of her husband's presence and experience, and his record of accomplishment.
What Clinton lacks is what Obama brings to his party and to a cynical nation—inspiration. His view of the nation and the world is just what that says, inspiring. He has also been a distinguished senator for Illinois, but he has the evident character of a leader at a time when effective leadership of this country is sorely needed at home and abroad.
Barack Obama also has a dynamic wife, Michelle, with an intellect equal to her husband's and the personality to match, who would make an outstanding first lady. What all of that means is that when I close the voting booth curtain behind me for the primary—unless things change dramatically before Feb. 5—I will vote for Sen. Obama and be proud to say so.