by Bernie Niemeier
One of my all-time favorite movies is “Legends of the Fall” released in 1994, directed by Edward Zwick and starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond. Set in Montana, it is an epic tale of the American West in the 1900s featuring just about every classical character archetype and plot intrigue: sibling rivalry, love triangles, brothers in arms, death, revenge, a wise old Indian, Chinese pirates, rum runners, organized crime and money-influenced politicians.
The main character, played by Pitt, is Tristan Ludlow, an uncontainable and heroic free spirit who early discovers his personal power after an autumn encounter with a grizzly bear. He lives a passionate and rebellious life; finally being brought to an end in old age through a second chance encounter with the same grizzly. The bear is not so much the ultimate winner as a parallel spirit to the much-loved Tristan.
For some reason, watching the recent national political conventions reminded me of this movie, perhaps because the conventions also portrayed struggles of epic proportion.
First, the Republicans leveled charges of failed leadership and a failed economy, followed by the Democrats painting a portrait of difficult choices and steady progress in tough times, with neither party claiming that our present circumstances are of their own making.
Virginia’s delegates to these conventions enjoyed prime seating in both Tampa and Charlotte. Close polls and our swing- state status have cemented Virginia as a must-win state.
In his acceptance speech, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan painted a picture of our unemployed children saying, “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get on with life.”
Democratic former President Bill Clinton delivered a keynote message casting the incumbent administration as more centrist and more effective than the “right-wing, alternative universe” of the Republican Party.
Both parties strove to make the case that never before has our nation been faced with two more starkly different choices. On one hand, we have candidates and a party that favor self-determination on economic issues and government involvement on social issues. On the other hand, we have candidates and a party that favor self-determination on social issues and government involvement on economic ones.
On one hand, we have a party that believes economic improvement will come from lower taxes and less regulation. On the other hand, we have a party that believes economic improvement will come from more spending on education and infrastructure. For anyone other than single-issue voters, these are not easy choices.
Virginia’s front-row seating hasn’t been confined to the convention floor. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, so-called independent groups bought more than $37 million in political advertising in Virginia by the beginning of September, more than a tenfold increase from the presidential race of 2008. Another $7 million in paid television time was already reserved for October.
Beyond Virginia’s swing-state status, a major reason political ads have soared is the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case ruling that restrictions on corporate or union spending in federal elections are unconstitutional.
With a deeply divided presidential contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, as well as a hotly contested Senate race between Tim Kaine and George Allen, Virginia finds itself at the forefront of the national political scene. At the same time, and likely regardless of political outcomes, we are on the front lines of potentially arbitrary cuts in federal spending (see “Peering over the fiscal cliff”).
U.S. economic numbers remain mixed. Unemployment numbers show some improvement, but jobs remain scarce. In Europe, college graduates are perhaps staring at their own faded posters, though not necessarily because of our candidates. On the national stage, like Tristan Ludlow, Virginia has become a legend this fall. We are running with the bulls while hoping to miss a second encounter with the bear.
There is much on the line in November. Beyond the more obvious pocketbook issues, this includes our commonwealth’s reputation as the place where genteel statesmanship and the early values of our democracy took original form.
Make sure your vote counts.
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