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Party affiliation, from one generation to the next

Michael Smerconish

By Michael Smerconish

Published Sept. 8, 2014

 Party affiliation, from one generation to the next
Our eldest son begins college next week. Before packing his bags, he first signed two legal documents, each signifying a right of passage: the Selective Service registration status form and Pennsylvania voter registration application. The latter was the subject of more conversation than the former. That's a reflection of politics and current events being staples at our dinner table since he was born. Which is not to say that either his mother or I sought to influence his decision. For my part, I told him the same thing I said to his older sister when she registered: "I'd rather you cancel me out than not vote."

Still, my interest in his affiliation was more than casual. Party affiliation and voting are very personal to me. I earn a living by commenting on our political process in print, on radio, and on television, and while my opinions might sometimes be wrong, they are all heartfelt.

I'm particularly proud of never having missed an election in 34 years of voting eligibility. For the first 30 years of my voting life, I'd been a registered Republican and played an active role in GOP campaigns on a local, state, and national level. While a Republican, I was an elected alternate delegate to a national convention while still in college, ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature while in law school, and was appointed (at age 29) to a subcabinet level position in the administration of George H.W. Bush.

But in 2010, I wanted out of the GOP. As I wrote at the time, I'm not sure if I left the Republican Party or the party left me. All I knew was that I no longer felt comfortable.

"I view the national GOP as a party of exclusion and litmus tests, dominated on social issues by the religious right, with zero discernible outreach by the national party to anyone who doesn't fit neatly with its parameters which is not to say I feel comfortable in the Democratic Party, either," I wrote then.

So, when renewing my driver's license, I was asked by a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation representative if I desired to change my registration. I said yes, and checked the box for "No affiliation," which in Pennsylvania is the equivalent of Independent.

My son knows all of this background. But I wasn't sure what he would do with his own application. I stood silently watching him fill in his personal data, waiting to see how he would answer question No. 9: "In which party to you wish to register?"

The form afforded him four options: Democratic, Republican, Other (Please specify), or No Affiliation. With the stroke of a pen, Michael Smerconish Jr. joined the GOP. He signed his name, and then gave me his rationale.

"I want to vote as often as possible," he said, explaining why he wanted to register with a particular party instead of following my lead. I had to admit that I'm sympathetic, having felt shut out of Pennsylvania's closed primary process in the last four years. My onetime optimism that Pennsylvania would open its primary process in the face of growth among Independents here and nationwide has dimmed. Which means that people like me will continue to show up to vote in November, having been precluded from influencing the nomination process the previous spring.

So I understood why he ruled out "No affiliation," but what explained his selection of the Republican Party instead of registering Democratic?

My son told me that he thought it most important that the country have good choices in general elections and that there were more in the current crop of GOP leaders with whom he'd be uncomfortable in command. I pointed out that he was basing that observation on the previous presidential cycle when a Democratic incumbent didn't have to endure intraparty debates. If there had been, would he have the same concern about that party?

"There are more Republicans among the contenders that I'd rather not have in the White House, so I want to vote in their primaries," he said, while making clear that if it appears the Democratic Party might nominate someone he believes unacceptable, he'll make a change. For him, it's about exercising his influence in a way that limits outliers.

He registered to vote on a day when we went fly-fishing with his grandfather. That morning, when I'd pulled over to buy flies from a local vendor, my son pointed out a sign the merchant had erected: "G0D Save America, Before It's Too Late!"

At the end of the day, we stopped for gas. Revisiting our conversation about his registration, I told him I hoped I hadn't poisoned his decision-making process. There was a pickup truck adjacent to where we were filling up, with two bumper stickers. One read "It's One Nation Under G0D, Get It?" The other said, "Obama Must Go."

"No, Dad, you didn't influence my decision," said my son, "they did."

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Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of "Smerconish" on CNN.

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