Saturday, December 26, 2009

Political Campaign Documentaries

As a Poli Sci maor studying in Washington, D.C. (soon to be London for a bit) my Netflix queue has of late been dominated by political documentaries following candidates for office. Two of the best films were Street Fight, which focused on the 2002 Mayoral Candidacy of Cory Booker in Newark, NJ, and Can Mr. Smith Still Go to Washington. The latter of these films focused on the 2006 candidacy of Jeff Smith in the Democratic Primacy for the St. Louis Congressional Seat vacated by the retiring Dick Gephardt. These films provide an inside look at the upper level organization of campaigns that most political volunteers and even operatives at higher levels have little access too. The chance to gain an inside look at the decision making process behind how a candidate operates their campaign is invaluable in examining the positive and negative aspect to a given campaign.

Street Fight focused on Newark City councilman Cory Booker. A Stanford educated attorney turned politician whose focus on improving the living conditions in Newark brought him into contention with six term incumbent Mayor Sharpe James and the Democratic machine of New Jersey. Booker, a fellow Democrat, challenged what he say as the perpetual poverty in Newark, the inaction of Mayor James, and the cut throat nature of Newark Politics. Running on the change platform that would later form the basis of Barack Obama's historic Presidential Campaign, Booker ran into unexpected issues with race. Although both candidates were African American James attempted to portray Booker as a "race traitor" who was taking money for Republican donors. In the end Cory Booker came up just three thousand votes short of overthrowing the dominion of Sharpe James. James utilized thousands of imported campaign volunteers, racial tensions, and outright intimidation to beat Booker. In 2006 Booker chose to run again and James opted out of re-election, Councilman Booker carried the election with nearly 70% of the vote. Booker later became famous due to his feud with Conan O'Brien that resulted in Conan being banned from entering Newark City Limits.

Can Mr. Smith Go to Washington Anymore is a modern nonfiction play on the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring James Stewart. The documentary aims to examine whether or not a political outsider can realistically run for Congress. Attempting to claim to seat held by the retiring Rep. Dick Gephardt. charter school founder Jeff Smith is seeking the Democratic nomination for this Congressional seat. An educational profession who has charted a number of schools targeted at improving the quality of minority education. Going up against the Missouri Carnahan dynasty Smith places meeting as many of the people in the district as possible. Despite raising a large amount of money and building up quite a bit of momentum Smith was unable to wrest the Democratic nomination from Russ Carnahan. Smith, although he was not unable to win the nomination, has not retreated from the public sphere. Instead he made an unsuccessful bid for the State Senate and plans another Congressional run.

In addition to being fascinating looks at the political process in the United States, these two films have a few other things in common. Both campaigns were unsuccessful and both candidates were democrats. Unsuccessful campaigns are actually better case studies for modern American politics as they show the level of devotion it requires to come even moderately close to winning a major election today. Furthermore inside information within the campaign is not at a premium in a losing effort as it will not be necessarily employed in a reelection bid in two or four years. As for the focus on Democrats I am at a bit of a loss. You could argue that film makers are more likely to be Democrats and that the use of documentary film is a progressive technique. I think however, that the main reason Republicans have been reluctant to adopt this technique is chronic short sightedness. By not seeing that even in defeat a campaign can result in a positive outcome republicans have compounded their mistakes.

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