SNYDER, N.Y. — Back in my undergraduate days at Canisius College in Buffalo, one of the campus ministers used to marvel at the fact that I was a registered Republican.
He was a Kennedy Democrat and, clutching his hair in angst, would repeatedly ask: "I know you ... I know you care about people ... you're Catholic ... how can you vote Republican?"
It was as if he had asked me how I could support Jonathan Swift's modest little proposal: "How can you vote for the boiling and eating of children?"
You know, I often ask myself today how I can continue to vote Republican. It's true, I should be a Democrat. I'm for workers' rights, offering a helping hand to those who truly need it, and recognizing that we all have our own talents and faults, which is all the more reason to respect one another. More specifically, I'm for an increase in the minimum wage, funding quality social services, a progressive tax code that requires the wealthy to pitch in more than others, and the abolition of the death penalty.
Yet, I vote Republican. Why? Usually, I give the stock answer about believing that folks ought to be responsible and self-sufficient, and we don't need the government to do everything for us. But didn't I just advocate "a helping hand to those who truly need it?" I contradict myself - and I know it. I'm in a political battle for my own soul.
My confusion intensified recently after reading Garrison Keillor's outstanding new book, "Homegrown Democrat." Mr. Keillor calls it his "love letter to liberalism." There's not one thing in that book that I disagree with; I recommend it highly. In fact, when I read a book, I start with a long strip of paper as a bookmark. When I come to an extraordinary phrase or paragraph - something that really hits me where I live - I rip a piece of the paper off, write the line down, and leave it in that page. At the end of the book, I have a trail of breadcrumbs, allowing me to revisit those great lines.
Believe me, I've read many books without doing much ripping. But, reading "Homegrown Democrat," I ran out of paper.
One of my favorite pearls: "Your mother didn't raise you to be a jerk who sucks up to power and treats the help like dirt. Go ahead and prosper, but mind your manners. And don't pick on the vulnerable." Rip.
Keillor also writes: "My ancestors told me, in plain Protestant fashion, to Work, Achieve, Be Somebody, Question Authority, Don't Be a Chip on the Tide, Be Your Own Man. The glib Sixties talk about the system being broken struck me as juvenile and silly: if water flows from the tap and the buses run and the mailman brings the mail and the newspaper lands on your porch in the morning with a fiery editorial against ignorance and corruption, the system is working okay - the rest is up to you." Rip.
And making me set the book down and collect my thoughts: "People are responsible for the things they do, yes indeed ... There are, however, broken people in this world and it does not help matters to order them to shape up and then walk away. You wouldn't do that with anyone you knew personally. Other people count, even broken ones." Rip.
In other words, Keillor agrees that folks ought to be responsible and self-sufficient, but he knows there are limits to that. There are those who genuinely need help: A single mother without adequate housing; an elderly person waiting for an ambulance; the many who live in poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth. Keillor continually calls this our "civil compact": to be decent and think of others as well as ourselves. He calls this being a Democrat.
Now, why can't John Kerry anchor his campaign on these ideals? Instead of focusing on the real problem of poverty and strengthening needed social services, his commercials tout his long-ago military service. Instead of concentrating on building a culture of caring, he spent a good portion of his convention acceptance speech trying to convince us that he's tough enough for the job - a real warrior. In short, he sounds like a Republican, just watered down a bit.
On the other side, George Bush isn't timid about letting us know that he supports efforts such as government funding for community and faith-based groups. That's money for an organization in your neighborhood. And, of course, he's expertly branded himself as the "compassionate conservative." It may just be lip service and marketing, but at least he's out there saying it.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party that Keillor writes about no longer exists. His Old School Liberalism has no candidate. In November, he'll be profoundly disappointed in me. I agree with him, yet I'll still end up voting Republican because the Democrats have not given me a viable alternative. So, let's start the campaign today: Keillor in 2008.
• Brian Kantz is an editor and writer. His column, 'The Newbie Dad,' appears in the Western New York Family magazine.