Political Hay

Inaugural Memories

Today, Democrats celebrate what they once protested.

By 1.20.09

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Eight years ago today, I took my daughter Kennedy to see President Bush's inauguration. The weather was miserable, a cold drizzle of sleet and rain falling for most of the day, but that was of little concern to a dad taking his 11-year-old to watch a moment of history.

Kennedy was homeschooled and, as part of her social studies lessons that year, she had followed the presidential election, assembling a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the campaign. On election night, she stayed up to watch TV coverage of the returns, coloring each state red or blue on an outline map until sometime after midnight when it became obvious that "too close to call" was the closest to a decision there would be. Her scrapbook was extended with clippings about the five-week Florida recount until Bush was certified the winner by 537 votes.

Our journey downtown for the inauguration parade was sort of a field trip to culminate that project, but it was also an unexpected lesson for my daughter. The lesson was provided by the legions of anti-Bush protesters who showed up in an effort to spoil the fun for everyone.

"Hail to the Thief" proclaimed some of the signs held by these protesters, not all of whom were of the anarchist-scum variety who turned out for the 1999 anti-globalization demonstrations during the International Monetary Fund meetings. Many of those who turned out to boo and jeer Bush's 2000 inauguration were middle-aged people carrying anti-Bush placards supplied by their labor unions.

"How lame," my daughter said of the protesters. Standing for hours in the bone-chilling rain was unpleasant enough for those who supported Bush. What kind of madness would cause people to endure such conditions in order to express their contempt for the new president?

This wasn't "dissent" -- the protesters weren't going to change the facts of the election, and they weren't attempting to influence policy. Rather, it was merely tacky rudeness. Let us hope that no Republicans mar today's ceremonies with similar displays of bad taste.

No such protests are likely today, of course. The Democratic and Republican parties are organized on different principles, appealing to different constituencies, and the politics of protest is not something the GOP does well. The 2000 election was one of the rare occasions when Republicans organized effective protests, with grassroots activists gathering outside the vice-presidential residence at the Naval Observatory during the Florida recount to chant "Get out of Cheney's house!" -- chants that reportedly unnerved Al Gore.

Protests are for the disempowered, and eight years of the Clinton presidency had left Republicans feeling sufficiently disempowered that, with the balance of power hanging like a chad in Palm Beach County, a few dozen of them were willing to turn out for those anti-Gore protests. It was an evanescent eruption, however, and once it was over, Republicans went back to acting like Republicans.

Under normal conditions, the typical Republican voter is politically inert. He turns out to vote in November, then goes back to working and paying taxes. Twenty years ago, conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke went to cover one of the massive protest rallies that periodically fill the National Mall in Washington with indignant liberal activists. Returning from the rally, he was asked why Republicans never do anything similar. The answer was obvious: "Because we have jobs!"

That's the simplest explanation for why there will be few if any Republican protesters at Barack Obama's inauguration festivities. While TV news has spent the past week hyping the occasion as a moment of world-historical significance, for the typical Republican, it's just another Tuesday. He will celebrate the occasion by waking up, taking a quick shower, getting dressed, grabbing a cup of coffee and going to work.

Politics occupies a smaller place in the conservative soul. The whole point of limited government is to restrict the sphere of politics, so that the regular routine of everyday life is beyond the reach of political influence.

By contrast, liberals ascribe to politics a mystical transformative power that adds meaning and purpose to life. This explains the liberal media's breathless enthusiasm over the "Hope" and "Change" symbolized by today's ceremony.

No one should begrudge liberals this occasion, but rather feel sympathy for them. Whether they are celebrating a Democrat's inauguration or, as eight years ago, protesting the inauguration of a Republican, liberals seek in politics a transcendent meaning it can never really provide.

To quote my daughter, "How lame."

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.