“The Tea Party does not represent this district, I do.”
So says Joseph Cao to a potential voter who is concerned about the direction of the Republican party and uncertain about whether or not he could support a Republican candidate–even one who defied his party to be the only Republican Congressman to initially vote for President Obama’s healthcare reform. (Cao later reversed his vote after the Senate version of the bill included funding for abortion services.)
It is an exchange that lies at the heart of what makes S. Leo Chiang’s documentary both heartening and disheartening, both encouraging and maddening. Elected in 2008 to replace nine-term incumbent William Jefferson, Cao was the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress and a white Republican in New Orleans’s second district, where 75% of the voters cast their presidential ballot for Barack Obama.
The documentary focuses not merely on Cao’s first term, which provides an honest–at times painful–portrayal of how the idealistic (naive?) get inaugurated into the capitol, partisan mindset, but also on his reelection campaign. The tension between these two threads–the idealist in Washington and the realist trying to ensure he will go back to Washington–makes the film rich and subtle in the way few political documentaries are these days, but it may also be what keeps the film in the “very good” instead of great category.
By focusing a little more on the reelection, the film ultimately frames itself as a commentary on the costs of bipartisanship than on the meaning of representative government. It is a truism of any pollster that how you frame a question makes an immense difference to the answer you get. By continually asking whether a predominantly African-American district will (re)elect a white representative, the film leaves unchallenged the assumption that Cao is bipartisan, thus implying that prejudice and ignorance are the only possible reasons someone might vote for the Democratic candidate.
The truth, as the film skillfully shows in the parts dealing with Cao’s first term, is a little more complicated. Cao argues to irate Republican supporters that his initial “yes” vote on health care is necessary because it is in the best interest of his constituents, a factor that should trump party affiliation. Yet when Democratic voters complain that he voted “no” against the ultimate version of the bill, he argues that his personal convictions against abortion are more important than what the majority of his constituents want. His ultimate response quoted above, then, is problematic in ways neither he nor the film seem to realize. Yes, one would hope that voters would care more about a politician’s personal integrity than the rhetoric of his associates (they did, in fact, elect him largely because of scandals about Jefferson’s personal integrity), but do voters not have a legitimate right to vote for a candidate who they expect will pursue what they perceive to be in their best interests? Does Cao represent personal integrity–as he defines it–or does he represent the citizens of the second district of Louisiana?
This is not to say that Cao is a bad guy. As the 2010 election draws near in the film, I found myself hoping that voters would reelect him. It’s just to say that I question Cao’s (and his supporter’s) premise, that by endorsing his Democratic opponent, President Obama and the Democrats were the only ones making party affiliation a non-negotiable shibboleth. Cao claims in the film that President Obama said he would endorse him if he switched parties, to which Cao counters that he is–or should be–more valuable to the president as a Republican who is willing to compromise and work with the president (he voted with Obama 68% of the time) than as a Democrat who will get in line.
That might be true. The reality that the film presents, however, is that voting your conscience is not the same as being willing to compromise. ao is not ultimately willing to compromise on health care. Is Obama wrong to endorse a candidate who might support him more than 68% of the time? Who is willing to support him on the key legislation? Is it more important–or should it be–to voters and parties why a person casts his vote the way he (or she) does than how the vote is ultimately cast?
I think there is an argument to be made that the former should count for something. Indeed, the film makes a powerful argument that caring only about the latter gets us the kind of polarized, gridlocked government that we all claim to despise. I felt that its argument, while basically strong, was too stacked. By failing to really explore the counter arguments, it evades the harder question of what representative government really means.
Yet even with that fairly large caveat, I can’t help but enthusiastically recommend the film. It is a serious film about serious questions. Most importantly, it is one of the few sustained examinations of American politics that doesn’t demonize the opposition nor express a cynical “pox on all of them” attitude towards those who want to participate in it. Cao originally trained to be a Jesuit priest but decided to go into politics instead of the ministry because he hoped and expected he could do more good for more people. A politician called to run for office because he feels led to a live of service and, when elected, does his level best to stand up for the good of his people as he sees it. Now there’s a man I could get behind…even if he was a Republican.
Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is playing at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham on Friday, April 13, 2002.