Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Vote or Die

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is a wonderful documentary that simultaneously boosted my faith in small grassroots campaigns and made me a little more cynical about national politics. The film follows the 2004 Democratic primary in Missouri's 3rd congressional district, in the wake of Dick Gephardt's retirement. About a dozen Democrats vied for Gephardt's seat, and teacher Jeff Smith was one of them. His main opponent was the Governor's son and a member of the Carnahan family, Missouri's own political dynasty.

Through the various stages of the campaign process, you learn more about Smith. He's my type of candidate. (Then again, haha, I've never picked a winner in a wide-open primary!) His campaign is like any underdog's: strong background in the community, long hours, heavy on the door-to-door, secondary reliance on phonebanking, run by volunteers (most of them college students with no campaign experience). I got a premature election day buzz watching it all.

The answer to the title question is no. Smith loses the primary. He comes in a close, close second, though, due to a lot of hard work, nonstop mobilizing and messaging, and a very personal campaign strategy. But ultimately, Carnahan's name recognition gets him to Congress, despite the fact he ran a crappy campaign. That's the demoralizing part, the idea that national politics isn't about ideas or policies or making a difference, and that the Jimmy Stewart role was just propaganda to make everyone wave the flag and yell "Rah rah democracy." Smith does, however, go on to win a seat in the state senate, and the film shows a bit of that in the end. So he still makes a difference, just at a more local level. Maybe that's the key. Because it sure as hell was the message of the film.

Watching the documentary was a little bittersweet -- I'll miss campaigns for two years, ironically while studying how law and policies affect society! I'll miss the initiatives, the local races, the bloodbath primaries (oh wait, that's redundant). This November will be the first election night I don't go to an election night party, unless an extreme, extreme miracle somehow inserts me into the Massachusetts political machine (highly unlikely).

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