Want to know why politics doesn't work? Judge Bill Gibron says the answers lie in this amazing look at the 2004 presidential election.
The true story of how elections are won…and lost.
In 2004, President George Bush faced a daunting re-election. The war in Iraq wasn't won, the job market was depressed, and the general consensus in the country was turning away from his brand of security-oriented steadfastness. Looming before them was a head-to-head campaign against Democratic front-runner (and eventual nominee) John Kerry. A Vietnam veteran, long-time senator, and potent campaigner, Bush had to find a winning strategy or else lose the White House. The theme came from the simplest of stands—any vote against the Republicans was a vote to support terrorism. It would be the slogan for the next few months. Then Kerry started to stumble, taking hits from sides many knew would probably attack. But his team took a tactic that would eventually cost him the election. Instead of defending his own individual honor, Kerry simply let the accusations stand. Then he lurched right back into a couple of them. As the first Tuesday in November approached, it appeared to be anyone's race. For several grassroots campaign workers in Ohio, either side could snatch victory out of the jaws of decided defeat. Following close behind them were documentary filmmakers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo. With all that was at stake, the directors wanted to be there when one of the political battlegrounds finally determined its victor. They truly believed the old saying—as Ohio goes, So Goes the Nation.
Listen up Hillary and Obama. Better pay attention John Edwards and William "Bill" Richardson. If you want to know where the John Kerry campaign went utterly wrong and, by comparison, see the masterful, manipulative way in which the Bush/Cheney team went about winning, then pick up a copy of …So Goes the Nation and study it carefully. In the long lineage of "you are there" political documentaries, from 1960's Primary to 1993's War Room, no one has done a better job of deconstructing the modern partisan animal better than directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo. Arriving in Ohio just days before the general election, and geared up to cover the surprising turn of events that allowed Republican "ballot challengers" to take up residence in each and every polling place, what the duo discovered was one of the most unusual and compelling grass-roots efforts occurring in the nation. By following three distinct individuals—ideological lawyer (and '60s survivor) Miles Gerety, first-time campus crusader Evan Hutchinson, and long-time Bush advocate Leslie Ghiz—and then accenting their door-to-door canvassing with big-picture pronouncements from almost every major figure who worked on either campaign (candidates excluded), we learn some shocking truths about how an unpopular president (under 50 percent at the time) still managed to retain his office.
By setting up a deceptively simple strategy—Bush is strong, Kerry is weak; Bush is decisive, Kerry tends to flip-flop—and never once swaying from that central message, the Republican strategists argue that they held the popular position even as Democrats won the social issue debate. Bush was never going to win on his record or his attention to policy detail. Instead he would emphasize his determination and argue that he was the only leader that could manage any possible pending crises. Yes, it was "FEAR" that drove the 2004 campaign, and these experts are not beyond flaunting that fact. If you've ever heard Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews argue that the White House uses security and terror to forward its frequently flawed agenda, only to have the Executive Branch scoff at such a suggestion, well, here's your absolute proof. Beyond Karl Rove's revisionist notion that the swing voter is not as important as energizing your dedicated base, this post 9/11 strategy to basically scare people into voting for the incumbent worked brilliantly. Along with the call to conservatives (which results in one of the film's more satisfying last-act twists), making an underemployed, health care-less populace want to vote for the man responsible for your sad fiscal lot in life is the legacy left behind by these undeniably brilliant men. If they ever figure us out, one of them says, we'll be wiped out when it comes to ballot time. The 2006 midterm is perhaps said prediction come to life.
The Democrats are equally upfront. They recognize that Kerry made many unconscionable mistakes (his "I voted for before I voted against" comments in front of West Virginia veterans, not standing up to the Swift Boat people) and when he's contrasted with Bill Clinton, the differences are startling. More or less on message every time he spoke, Kerry came across as stern and aloof. Watching him alongside the former president, you see where he came up short. There is nothing personable about the senator, not even as he tries to connect with everyday people via snowboarding and hunting. Though Bush is just as elitist as Kerry ever could be, he somehow managed to turn his terms in the Texas governor's mansion into a goofy good-old-boy demeanor. There is nothing rustic or rural about our current commander-in-chief, but when it comes to acting the part of "man of the people," only Bush could pull it off. Indeed, Kerry eventually was tagged for his confusing, contradictory positions, a softness on military preparedness (though he, not W, served in Vietnam), and an overall sense of personal uncertainty. One of the main selling points that both the Democrats and Republicans acknowledge is that the president sold the country a "this is who I am, love me or leave me" bill of goods. All the while, Kerry couldn't figure out who he was, and what exactly he was selling.
By telling the story from both inside the campaign machinery and outside in the volunteer trenches, …So Goes the Nation nimbly avoids many of the issues that undermine any persuasive political discussion. They never let one side or the other dominate the debate. Indeed, the Republicans spell out the numerous instances when they believed the election was over. They acknowledge the strength of Kerry's record and representation, then attack the way in which it was offered. Similarly, the Democrats condemn their own lack of spine and decision to go on the defensive instead of the offensive. Though the movie moves quickly over into a partisan approach (a group of college-age Bush supporters chant horrible homophobic and near-racist epithets), the main point is that politics not only make strange bedfellows, but said ideological lovers occasionally fall into the same stupid traps that all incompatible couples face. The sex (election) is lots of fun. The afterglow (victory/defeat) is far too short and never very sweet. We come to appreciate Gerety's passion, Hutchinson's hurt, and Ghiz's goofy obsession with the man in the Oval Office (who he looks at as a father figure…). All the arguments about voting machines, district rigging, and manipulation by the Ohio secretary of state (a firm Bush supporter) become secondary when the reason behind the Republican victory is finally explained. Democrats turned out in record numbers. The opposition simply managed to get more of their people to the polls.
In the end, that was the difference. Kerry's stumbles may have cost him a swing vote here or there, but in the end, Bush and his conservative crew got their constituency up and excited. Though there is still reason to be wary of a supposed system that takes our inherent right to vote and forces it through more regulatory bells and whistles than most corporations must manage just to do business, and …So Goes the Nation does suggest that dirty dealings behind closed doors can and did contribute to some of the major problems in both 2000 and 2004, the end result of all this fascinating hand-wringing is this: a candidate is only as good as his campaign staff. Love them or loathe them, Bush's men—Matthew Dodd, Ed Gillespie, Ken Melhman and Mark McKinnon—took Kerry's crew—Paul Begala, Mary Beth Cahill, Tad Devine, and Terry McAuliffe—out to the electoral woodshed and beat their butt with a perfectly executed strategic switch. In retrospect, neither candidate helped their own cause and hindsight is almost always 20/20 divided by a track record 2x4, but it is clear that Ohio was poised to play spoiler for either party. The fact that it came down to popularity, not polling or specific policies, proves the tentative title sentiment. It will be interesting to see what the 2008 presidential election has in store for us.
Offered by the Weinstein Company (through Genius Entertainment) with some additional help from the Independent Film Channel, …So Goes the Nation is presented in an excellent DVD package. Granted, individuals hoping for a 16x9 presentation will be sadly disappointed. The 1.33:1 full-screen image is letterboxed, preserving a theatrical aspect ratio but doing those in need of an anamorphic widescreen transfer no great favors. The picture looks terrific—brightly colorful, totally professional, and overloaded with a variety of archival footage. All size issues aside, this is an excellent digital print. Yet perhaps the most important element for a talking-head documentary is not terrific visuals, but superior sound. Luckily, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is just perfect. All the conversations are crystal clear, and even the on-the-scene audio is perfectly balanced. There is no distortion or overmodulation to be found. Finally, the disc's lone extra is a splendid full-length audio commentary from the directors. Stern and Del Deo are excellent narrators, walking us through the inspiration for the film (a newspaper article) and how the three outside campaign workers were chosen (many were filmed, only a few made the final cut). Though it's obvious from their discussions that only they, themselves, could have made this movie (they had major connections to people in both the Republican and Democratic camps), their devotion to the project is admirable. Their insights here also help flesh out many of the film's more complicated points.
In the end, the legacy of George Bush will be two-fold. There will be the decisions he made while president, and then there will be the two campaigns where, in one instance, he lost the popular vote and still became leader, and secondly, survived a horrible political climate to win reelection. For those individuals responsible for the electoral victories, their place in history is secure. While they may have backed a man of questionable administrative ability, their efforts will be studied, sampled, and repeated. It may be true that, as goes (insert state name here), so goes the nation, but as this amazing documentary reminds us, the true power is held by a certain select few. All we do is vote the way they want us to.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary by filmmakers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo
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