This is my second GOP primary season the Palmetto State, and the first one in which I plan to cast a vote. What amazes me is how much I have changed in the dozen years since my first foray into covering national politics.
In early February 2000, I was working as a news reporter for the Seneca Daily Journal and Clemson Daily Messenger in the Golden Corner of Upstate South Carolina. My beat included the towns of Clemson, Central, Pickens, Easley and Six Mile, as well as Pickens County government and Clemson University.
On February 9, 2000, Senator John McCain sat down at the latter for a taping of Hardball with Chris Matthews. Alan Keyes and George W. Bush were also on campus, and I recall shaking the latter’s hand before he delivered a speech to a very engaged crowd. During that event, I took a photograph of Bush that not only was used in my paper, but that I saw for years to come in other papers across the country. Late that evening, I covered a McCain event in which local congressman Lindsey Graham–the now-senator is a Seneca, S.C. native–gave his formal blessing to the Arizona senator, and in which former Family Research Council president Gary Bauer publicly endorsed McCain after suspending his own presidential campaign.
That entire weekend, I was amazed at the media deluge that came down upon the small town and beautiful campus (often deemed “Auburn with a lake”). George Stephanopoulos was very nice to chat with, and when I introduced myself to Tim Russert at the Hardball taping and explained how much I admired his work, Russert recognized my name, said that he had read my front-page piece on the youth vote in that morning’s paper, and told me that he enjoyed it tremendously.
I knew very little about national politics then, but the events were fantastic. I recall talking with longtime Clemson Mayor Larry Abernathy about the attention being placed on Clemson; the quote he gave me was something along the lines of, “I enjoy any opportunity for eyes across the nation to fall on our wonderful town.”
Overall, I was a different guy back then. I had been out of college for about two months, and was enjoying my first job as a journalist. The pay was terrible, but my overhead was more beer budget than anything else. I was also a registered Democrat; I cannot recall whether or not I voted that fall when I moved back up to Pennsylvania, but I do remember that I openly supported Vice President Al Gore, that I was disappointed when I heard that George W. Bush had won Florida, and elated when I heard later that the results were being questioned.
During the Hardball event, I recall being turned off by much of what Sen. McCain had to say. I distinctly remember thinking that he was darn near a right-wing extremist! Can you believe it? Good grief — I was such an idiot. It was more than a year later that I sat down on a rainy day with Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and started my Fosburian leap rightward.
Fast-forward a dozen years to mid-January 2012, and the South Carolina GOP primary has once again come to my doorstep. Gov. Rick Perry was in my hometown of Summerville, South Carolina a few days ago; Newt Gingrich is about ten minutes from my house today. At the end of this coming week, I’ll be skipping out on a day of work–I wish I could skip all three–and covering the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. On Thursday, I have media credentials and the opportunity to cover the CNN presidential debate from the press room. On Friday, I get to sit down with a personal hero, former Sen. Fred Thompson, for a one-on-one interview.
I’d be even more involved next week, but a couple of factors are keeping me from jumping in completely. First, while in 2000 I was working for a newspaper and getting paid to write stories, I now work for a law firm, and covering politics takes money out of my wallet. Second, while my biggest concerns a dozen years ago was having enough time to hit the right drink and chicken wing specials, the time I spend now chasing candidates is time I spend away from my five-year-old daughter and ten-month-old son. Finally, my wife is having surgery to get her gall bladder removed on Wednesday, so it might be difficult to leave her side to go admire John Huntsman’s eyebrow.
The biggest change, however, is in my own perspective on the world. While in 2000 I looked at John McCain like he was too far right, now I look at John McCain’s endorsement of Mitt Romney as almost as telling about Romney’s politics as Jimmy Carter’s tacit endorsement of the former Massachusetts governor back in September. While in 2000 I couldn’t believe what John McCain was saying about tax relief for job creators, now I look at the candidates on the trail and wish they were saying more about supply-side politics, about free enterprise, about things like Fast & Furious and Barack Obama’s unconstitutional power grab.
The world has also changed quite a bit since back then. We survived one recession, saw the beneficial results of tax relief, and then reaped what we’ve sown with regard to excessive government intervention in the credit and housing markets. We survived September 11, 2001 with a new-found–but, for many, short-lived–understanding of the threats facing Western civilization from points overseas. We are presently watching existential economic crises unfold in Europe, knowing that we’re making many of the same mistakes here.
After the Internet boom, it was hard for voters to say that there were not better off in 2000 than they were in 1996. Now, I think it’s fair to say that not too many folks are better off in 2012 than they were in 2008. Also changed is our ability to have rational, substantive discourse with those on the other side of the aisle — during the late 1990′s, Speaker Newt Gingrich was able to work bring President Bill Clinton to the center significantly enough to enact welfare reform and provide tax relief, while nowadays President Barack Obama willfully departs from any hope of substantive change for the American people in favor of accusing congressional Republicans of being “in favor of dirty air and dirty water.”
So much is different. What has not changed, however, is the uncanny ability of Palmetto Staters to pick the eventual Republican Party nominee. Since 1980, no GOP candidate has emerged as the party nominee without winning South Carolina. Unlike in 2000, when I was really only passing through the Palmetto State and was still considered a Pennsylvania resident, I live here now, and I’ll be casting my vote on Saturday, January 21 for who I hope will be the eventual nominee. In the meantime, I hope to get as much enjoyment in the process and environment now as I did a dozen years back.