PHILADELPHIA — We have been having a lot of political conversations around the house recently. And by "we," I mean me and my 5-year-old.
Nearly every day as we stroll down the streets of Philadelphia, with me pushing 70 pounds of children in a massive double jogger, and my two kids bickering with each other like Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly, we are confronted by politics: The homeless guy, wearing a sandwich board and shouting anti-Bush slogans. The earnest MoveOn kids registering voters. The eager Democratic National Committee recruiters assailing us with, "Do you want to get George Bush out of office?"
One afternoon, Emi asked, "Mommy, who are you voting for?"
"I'm going to vote for John Kerry."
"Me too," she said. "Why does nobody want George Bush in the office?"
"Well, some people think he's not doing a good job, so they want somebody else to have a turn. This year we're having an election, where everyone votes for who they want to be president, and that's why so many people are talking about it."
Emi knows a little about how voting works: last year her preschool class filled out ballots voting for which Tastykake item was best. Her choice didn't win.
Having heard the public discourse and seen a Web-based cartoon spoof (which she refers to as "the song with the guy who's not smart and the other guy who's supposed to be president"), Emi was excited to recognize the main players in some of the campaign ads during the Olympics. She was surprised to see a friendly George Bush smiling and sitting next to his wife in one commercial. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "He's pretending to be nice so people don't know how mean he is!"
"Well, he's probably not a mean guy in real life," I said. "But you're kind of right. This is a commercial, just like the other commercials that want us to buy stuff. What we're supposed to buy in this one is that George Bush is a nice guy."
"But he's not," she said.
"Maybe he is," I countered.
She rolled her eyes at my attempt at being bipartisan and said, "I'm still voting for John Kerry!"
She also saw ads attacking John Kerry. "That's not nice!" she scolded the TV. "George Bush just wants everyone to vote for him instead of John Kerry, and that's just not fair!"
She's all about fair these days, because as a 5-year-old big sister to a happy-go-lucky 2-year-old baby brother, life just isn't. Most of her emotional energy - aside from worrying about the presidential race - is spent on making sure Nate isn't sitting on my lap or otherwise taking up nonrenewable household resources. Being something of an emerging politico now, she knows how to spin it.
"Nate!" she'll scream as her cherubic sibling dashes off with her favorite toy. "You can't take Panda from me! If you do that, you can't vote for John Kerry!"
Her enthusiasm for Kerry over Bush isn't as much an astute sense of parental voting preferences as it is a connection she's made to his candidacy. In her mind, two people vying for the voting public's attention - one of whom seems to be getting a raw deal - parallels her contentious relationship with her little brother.
Despite the fact that she's the incumbent in this household (and nobody is planning on ousting her), in her mind she's Kerry and Nate is Bush. Emi's the righteous watchdog, always quick to point out what Nate might be doing wrong. (Of course, she's also a flip-flopper - first she wants juice in a red cup, then it's milk in a blue cup. Which is it?)
Nate, taking a page from W., is all wide-eyed innocence and "who, me?" bluster. With his Gerber baby looks, he is a poster child for pacifism - even after hitting his sister over the head with his "Blue's Clues" thinking chair. It's true that at just 2, Nate is more eloquent than Bush, and so far he's never invaded a country; but he does have that Dubya-like amiability that makes it impossible for complete strangers to deny his demands for "group hugs!" Meanwhile, Emi is complicated and misunderstood, lacking the charisma of a chubby toddler, her psyche more difficult to parse than that of a little guy who's entertained by anything with wheels.
As we move through September and the summer-job activists return to college, we are confronted less frequently by the sidewalk talk, and our political discussion has begun to taper off. We talk about normal things - what kindergarten will be like, how tough it is to be the big sister.
But yesterday, as we were making the trek home through the city, the two kids fought in the stroller. Nate kept putting his leg on Emi's side; Emi kept shoving Nate out of her way. Finally, Nate started pinching and pulling her hair. Emi had had enough.
"Nate, that's IT!" she screamed. "Mommy, I think Nate is running for George Bush!"
I smell a Jogging Stroller Veterans for Truth ad in the works.
• Andrea J. Buchanan is the author of "Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It."