Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): So Goes the Nation

Monday, October 27, 2008

So Goes the Nation

As we pivot from Fahrenheit 9/11 to the election Michael Moore hoped to influence, let us note that his film did not have the desired effect. As we all know, Mr. Currently 20% Approval Rating joined the company of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Dwight Eisenhower (and, hey, Richard Nixon) to win re-election. For some reason, I expected So Goes the Nation, a 2006 documentary about the 2004 election, to detail allegations of voter fraud and/or suppression in Ohio. Actually, though it appears to spring from a liberal perspective, So Goes the Nation places blame for John Kerry's loss on the Democratic Party, and its inability to get its message across. The entertaining doc cuts between a recap of the campaign and a daily countdown to Election Day in Ohio. I still don't know anything about irregularities in Ohio (the state which the whole election pivoted on), but So Goes the Nation makes a convincing case that if the Democrats want to win in the future, they had better take responsibility for their campaigns. They seem to have gotten the message.


The documentary also exposes the Republicans' exploitation of cultural issues, exclusion of swing voters to focus on their own base, and vilification of Kerry (a Vietnam veteran) as weaker on defense than their guy (um, not a Vietnam veteran). It does this not through sinister music and whistle-blower interviews, but with the proud testimony of George W. Bush's advisers themselves. As Paul Begala notes, they accomplished quite a feat: they got a relatively unpopular president, one whose approval ratings were below 50%, re-elected. They were helped in this by a very weak candidate: for anyone who didn't think Bush was a disaster (if only the election had happened 12-18 months later), John Kerry didn't offer much in the way of a viable alternative. And his verbal contusions offered ample ammo for a glib Republican catch-phrase: audiences eagerly chant "flip-flop, flip-flop" and even dress as man-size sandals to prove their point. The editing does a good job of showing how easily your man on the street picks up talking points they've heard in the media or in political advertisements, often repeating some pundit's statement verbatim.

On the strategic grounds, a lot of Dems roll their eyes and gnash their teeth at the Kerry campaign. They make some good points, but given the fact that some (like Terry McAuliffe, the chair of the DNC) were in a position to make their views heard when it really mattered, one is reminded of the poignant phrase, "Success has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." Nonetheless, messenger aside, the message itself resonates. Begala shakes his head in disbelief at a clever acronym some staffer came up with to summarize Kerry's policy positions, while meanwhile the Bushies are chanting "flip-flop, flip-flop!" all the way to victory. A low-level groundworker notes that the strident Bush hatred and Blue State elitism of progressives doesn't appeal to the swing voters and mumbles, "You know, some progressives like guns too." And at one point, we're shown a bus full of Hollywood celebrities transported to Ohio in matching jackets and caps, ruminating on the connections between Kerry's name and the verb "carry." Not exactly a convincing argument in the ol' heartland.

Meanwhile, take a look on the Republican side. The documentary presents a portrait of Republican unity and confidence. To a certain extent, this is exaggerated: I remember a lot of conservatives and independents who weren't fond of Bush, and his 48% approval would seem to belie the cheery confidence of his advisers (interviewed in retrospect when Bush had, obviously, been re-elected). The Republican Party volunteer plays a little too easily into stereotypes of emotional, thoughtless conservatism: she confesses that she sees Bush as a father figure and expresses a personal disgust with Kerry seemingly not based on policy. But she's harmless compared to the ugly, chanting crowds of frat kids screaming, "faggot!" at Kerry supporters, and what we see certainly aligns with memories of Republican belligerence and braggadocio and Democratic handwringing in 2004.

What were the lessons learned? Chastened, retreating from campaign headquarters after the disheartening acknowledgement that provisional ballots were insufficient to make up Kerry's deficit (i.e. that Bush was going to get a second term), the Kerry groundworker we met earlier shakes his head and says that the other side did a better job. By ignoring the independents and moderates, and focusing instead on getting out their own vote, the Republicans were able to hold onto power. And by fashioning a clear, simple narrative that played into people's knee-jerk perceptions (Bush sticks to his guns, Kerry flip-flops) they contrasted themselves nicely with a confused, misdirected Democratic campaign (most Kerry supporters I know voted for him simply because he was not Bush).

The first point seems to have become somewhat irrelevant. It failed the GOP in 2006, and looks to be failing them again in 2008 (knock on wood). Meanwhile, Democrats have achieved success with the opposite tactic, cutting into Red America with culturally conservative candidates and outflanking the Republicans on fiscal discipline and basic governing competence. In this, they've been helped by one of the most disastrous second terms in presidential history. On another note, Barack Obama has shown an ability to mobilize a fresh pool of voters: the unregistered and uninvolved, whose turnout was responsible for his victories in the primary. I'm not sure to what extent the Democrats have learned the organizational lessons of 2004, but Obama certainly has: he runs a tight ship, setting up operations months ahead of time. Meanwhile John McCain's VP is "going rogue", and one gets the sense that there are several campaigns unfolding simultaneously on the Republican side, some at cross-purposes.

And then there's message. It's astonishing how the roles have flipped this year: McCain lurches from issue to issue, approach to approach in a way that makes Kerry look like a straight arrow. He also kicked off his general-election campaign with appeals to his war experience, like Kerry with his "reporting for duty" and salute. But while Kerry was infamously swift-boated within days of his convention, his war record called into question, Democrats have not taken the similar low road with McCain. This is an interesting development, because, in addition to base turnout and focused messaging, Republican victory was based on intensely negative attacks on their opponent. Obama has certainly hammered McCain, but it's generally on policy rather than character (with the Bush campaign, it was a strong mixture of both, with the emphasis on the latter).

Aside from its current and historical relevance, So Goes the Nation offers a revealing, and somewhat disturbing, look at the way political campaigns sell their candidates. Kerry was sold poorly, Bush was sold well. Most people I know who voted for Bush in 2004 are completely embarrassed to admit it today. But they bought the more appealing product at the time. The campaign was slick, simple, straightforward. And so the other side licked its wounds and responded in turn. If the Republicans make their own So Goes the Nation a couple years from now, it's safe to say it will look a lot like this one. Which bodes well for Obama on November 4.

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