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Screening Liberally Big Picture: What The Candidate Got Right - And What It Got Wrong

01/23/2008 02:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set
too high. They said this country was too divided...You have done what
the cynics said we couldn't do.

- Presidential candidate Barack Obama, Iowa victory rally

They said when we got into this we didn't have a chance. They said
there was nothing we could do...Well, I'm not sorry, and I hope you're
not sorry. I think we've proved our point.

- Gubernatorial candidate Neil Atkinson (Joseph Miksak), California
campaign rally

A certain loneliness comes with believing your politics are unpopular.
Every liberal that's been tagged "the crazy left-wing radical niece"
at Thanksgiving dinner or labeled "a hippie" in high school knows this
intimately - when you associate strongly with a way of looking at the
world and everyone in your vicinity finds your opinions laughable,
it's hard not to feel a twinge of melancholy.

Believing that your politics are out of place in your hometown,
however, is much less severe than a belief that your politics are out
of place in your country. For a liberal to buy into the DLC's
proposition that progressive policies are inherently disliked by the
populace, that we have to tack right for reasons of pragmatism alone,
is to believe that while we can occasionally make a long-term shift
here and there, we basically have to wake up to the fact that our
country will never quite accept us. href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068334/">The Candidate, a
biting 1972 political comedy with Robert Redford playing the titular
Bill McKay, accepts half of the DLC's proposition: progressive
politics won't sell, but there's no prescriptions to be made -
politics is an exercise in loneliness and rejection, and there's
nothing one can do to make it any better.

McKay, at the film's start, is a community organizer in Southern
California, fighting for civil rights cases on behalf of latino
neighborhoods and generally doing everything he can to disassociate
himself from his father, the former conservative Democratic governor
of California. He gets an unexpected visit from Lucas (Peter Boyle),
an old campaign hand trying to recruit him as a Democratic candidate
for California's senate seat. The pitch is enticing. The popular,
archconservative incumbent, who has the delightfully implausible name
of Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), is a shoo-in for reelection - McKay
would not be playing to win. In fact, McKay's hopeless run would
merely be a platform to speak his mind on the politically unsavory
issues that really matter to him, poverty and race relations. After
some vacillation, McKay signs on, and thus, the film strongly implies,
seals his doom.

This suggestion begins subtly. Having seen McKay's ease of connection
with his clients in legal services, we're jarred by the awkwardness of
his interactions - this is not just poor public speaking on McKay's
part, this is visible discomfort in the role of candidate, a role the
entire campaign was originally meant to subvert. It soon becomes clear
that no matter how much McKay intends to lose, the very act of
advocating for one's self means selling one's self - a distancing
maneuver which he never had to face as a community organizer.

But there's a more important component to the awkwardness, and
ironically enough it's a testament to The Candidate's faith in
its audience that it doesn't hit us over the head with it: while McKay
the organizer could choose his clients, McKay the candidate can't
choose his electorate. The Candidate, more than most political
films, examines the fear that comes with immediately becoming a public
figure, the elevation of the mundane crazy heckler to a potential
assasin, the constant threat that an off-hand comment will unspool
everything, the need to go through endless bottles of Purell. In a key
scene, a seemingly mentally ill bystander sidles up to McKay and asks
repeatedly, "What do you think of my dog?" as handlers try to lead
McKay elsewhere. "It's a fine dog," McKay manages unconvincingly.

The scene is unnerving, sure, but more unnerving is the juxtaposition
of the scene with standard campaign-stump pablum - in between being
asked about a favorite local issue and to kiss a baby, the only thing
that makes the question of appraising one's dog menacing is the tone
in which it's asked. The Candidate seems to wonder out loud,
how can we expect these figures to engage with a public that acts so
banally in its one opportunity to engage? (One thinks of href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2007/10/09/iowan-tells-hillary-she-s_n_67791.html">the
advice given to  Hillary Clinton to wear her hair in the
fashion of Paris Hilton.)

As it becomes clear that his current path will lead him to be on the
losing end of a 30-70 blowout, McKay starts listening to the DLC-style
advisors on the campaign trail - he doesn't expect to win, but he'd
rather not be humiliated. He stops talking about the working poor and
environmental issues. He straddles the line on abortion. He does
everything he can to look like part of the mushy middle. And it works.
In the world of The Candidate, the honestly progressive McKay
is a sure loser next to the inauthentically centrist McKay.

We live in an era where the most exciting progressive strategists
recognize that progressive policies are popular - and thank goodness.
We're told near the beginning of The Candidate that "politics is
bullshit," but its own stance is much starker than that. For The
Candidate
, politics is a lose-lose proposition - you either
express your true beliefs, in which case you lose the election, or you
play the role of a meaningless center, in which case you lose your
soul. The only winning move is not to play.