Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rethinking "The Candidate"

I was showing "The Candidate" (1972) in class last week, and my views on that film are changing somewhat. Originally, my interpretation had been that Bill McKay (Robert Redford) was a decent, serious guy who kind of lost his way. As the possibility of becoming elected increased, he became more dependent on his consultants and less committed to his own beliefs. In my last viewing of it, however, it appeared to me that the political consultants were really manipulating him into this behavior.

At the beginning of the movie, for example, Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) is trying to recruit McKay to run. He does so by promising that McKay can say whatever he wants, since he's likely to lose anyway. However, on the night that McKay wins the Democratic nomination, Lucas hits him with some sobering exit polls.
Lucas: "I'm a little disappointed."
McKay: "Why? I've got 47 percent of the primary field."
Lucas: "Yeah, but if you look at the projection on the printout, it adds up to 32 percent in the election."
McKay: "So?"
Lucas: "So, if those figures hold 'til November, it'll be Jarmon 68, McKay 32."
McKay: "I thought I was supposed to lose."
Lucas: "Now I'm telling you you'll be wiped out. You'll be humiliated."
McKay: "That wasn't part of the deal."
This is a terribly unconvincing polling analysis. Using McKay's primary performance to suggest that roughly half the Democratic Party won't vote for him in the general election is preposterous -- of course McKay will get nearly all the Democratic vote. The thing is, Lucas knows this, but he knows McKay doesn't. So he uses a little bit of math and some information asymmetry to make McKay more dependent upon his advice.

The same sort of dynamic occurs throughout the film. Consultants keep telling McKay that he's free to do as he wishes, but they keep subtly reining him him. The same thing happens when the consultants are prepping him for media questions on various issues:
Consultant: "Mr. McKay, what do you think about legalized abortion?"
McKay: "I'm for it. I think every woman should have that right."
Lucas: "Wait a minute, Bill, you can't put it that way."
McKay: "It's what I think."
Lucas: "Well, it's not going to be understood without a hell of a long explanation, so how about this for the time being? Just say it's worth studying."
McKay: "Okay, I'll think about it."
Again, Lucas is bullshitting McKay. His answer was easily understandable, but was perhaps too strong for a statewide race in 1972.

There are several examples of consultants using their superior knowledge of politics to manipulate McKay into softening his stances. In the end, of course, they have molded McKay into the ideal candidate -- one who is electable but stands for nothing. If the consultants had any ideological predilections, they could easily use the new senator to their advantage. But one gets the impression that they have little interest in governing. They just enjoy the game.

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