Two Movies That Define Today’s Democrats

As the preserved corpse of the Bernie Sanders campaign gets prepped for its inevitable journey back to its spiritual home in Red Square, it’s yet another period of mourning for crushed idealism in the Democratic Party. Hollywood has been scripting this story for nearly 50 years, via two of its paradigmatic liberal heartthrobs and leading idealists: Robert Redford and Warren Beatty.

Redford and Beatty illuminated the internal combat of the Democratic Party in two defining films, released a quarter of a century apart. Both The Candidate (1972) and Bulworth (1998) remain windows into the soul of the Democrats. They’re telling explorations of how the Democrats understand their recurrent plight.

Both films are stories of Democrats running for the Senate in California, a state that holds a special place in Democratic dreams. The state on the far left of the continent was and is a progressive policy leader, a sunlit upland where liberal dreams come true, but it’s also the shadowy vista where the sun sets on unmet promises, where Robert Kennedy’s life ended and Ronald Reagan’s rise began. It’s a land of big dreams that die big deaths. It’s the ideal setting for the clash of ideal and compromise.

For many years, The Candidate (1972), which was directed in cinéma-réalité style by Michael Ritchie, was the preferred political parable of horse-race hacks, who thrilled to its once-novel sausage-factory cynicism. Today, cynicism about politics is so deeply entrenched that the film’s every “Aha!” became a “So what?” Robert Redford, also a producer of the film, is Bill McKay, a crusading young public-interest lawyer who has a frosty relationship with his father, John McKay (Melvyn Douglas), a former governor who represents staid Democratic-machine politics rather than the urgent new brand that flowered in 1968. Young McKay has no interest in political life (he has never even registered to vote), but a slick political operator (Peter Boyle) looking to make a buck coaxes him into running as a sacrificial lamb against the popular incumbent Republican, Crocker Jarmon. “Here’s your guarantee,” says Boyle’s Marvin Lucas, handing McKay a note saying, “YOU LOSE.” “You don’t have a chance, so say what you want.”

McKay sounds like Bernie Sanders as he hits the campaign trail. “The economy throws everything on the backs of the working man,” he says. He busts Big Oil, pollution, and racism. He unabashedly supports busing, which puts him on the far left of race politics in 1972, as well as abortion. Asked about welfare, which Crocker opposes on principle, McKay says, “We subsidize planes. We subsidize trains. Why not subsidize people?” This rhetoric wins him the Democratic nomination, but when polling suggests that McKay will lose to Jarmon by 36 points, the operatives fear their reputations will suffer in a blowout and teach McKay about how to win votes by pandering and obfuscation.

McKay is obliged to trim his hair and sideburns, to equivocate on abortion and busing, and to speak fluent bushwa. In debate, he learns to talk smoothly while saying nothing. Here’s his new position on busing: “We can’t let a school bus carry all the burdens of our society. The main problem is still, how do we get a first-rate education for each and every child?” Redford’s Pete Buttigieg impression is merciless: “I think the time has come when the American people realize that we’re in this together and that we sink or swim together.” In scattered moments, McKay goes off-script and says what he really thinks, but for the most part he accepts being neutered and housebroken. Later, lounging in the back of a car, McKay has become so cynical that he does a spoof of himself, and it’s another spot-on pastiche of vacuous Buttigiegese: “The time has passed . . . got to be a better way . . . can’t any longer play off black against old, young against poor. This country cannot house its houseless, feed its foodless!” The message of The Candidate is: Hide your true self, Democrats. Triangulate. Don’t scare anybody, least of all the powerful.

After four exhausting terms, Redford’s Senator McKay has turned into Warren Beatty’s senator Jay Bulworth, who in Bulworth (which Beatty also directed) is so frustrated and depressed by the Washington game that he is suicidal and hires a contract killer to shoot him so his family can collect his life insurance. Bill Clinton, whose career was frequently likened to McKay’s, had been president for six desultory years of what is now termed neoliberalism. Whatever happened to muscular, visionary leftism?

As McKay does at the start of The Candidate, Bulworth, because he figures he will die soon, reckons he has nothing to lose. So he gets drunk and stoned and goes on a manic spree, preaching single-payer health care and socialism. In the quarter-century since Redford’s movie, white leftist race politics had moved well past a policy of helping black folks to a desperate sort of wannabe blackness. Bulworth adopts the style of the black-power movement, starts delivering his speeches in the form of rap, and hooks up with a sexy Black Panther type (Halle Berry). In 2013, White House reporters discovered that then–president Barack Obama told aides he was thinking about having his own “Bulworth moment,” meaning, one supposes, he wanted to stop dissembling and openly push for socialism. Either that, or a black president yearned to feel free to act more like a white guy acting like a black guy.

The Candidate showed how ardently liberal Democrats grew to accept the reality of having to face voters, but Bulworth did the reverse, suggesting Democrats could recapture America by aligning with the gonzo Left. In the latter movie, Bulworth’s dull centrism looks like it’s going to lose him his primary race, but when he starts rapping about socialism, he becomes sensationally popular.

Just two weeks ago, the Democratic Party was in Bulworth mode, floating along on a cloud of manic delirium, freed from worry about what constraints voters might impose. Socialism was about to arrive in the United States, and we’d all rap about it all night long. From the Left’s perspective, there has been so much wasted time, so many missed opportunities, and yet on February 29, the night Joe Biden won South Carolina, the party veered sharply back into The Candidate mode, worried that voters think its undisguised instincts are too scary.

Recall the Louis C.K. routine, “Of course . . . but maybe.” These are the Democratic Party’s poles. Of course you can’t win an election by playing only to agitators, extremists, and idealists who fervently call for socialism. But maybe this maneuver will excite new voters, activate young people and minorities, create a new winning coalition, and finally change America into a European-style state. The “of course” candidates have been Hubert Humphrey, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden. The “but maybe” candidates have been Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Howard Dean, and now Bernie Sanders. The genius of Barack Obama was that he looked like a “but maybe” candidate to Democrats yet passed as an “of course” candidate to centrists. Obama is the only Democrat who could pull off this maneuver in the last half-century, and in the end he wound up being as ineffective as the morally depleted Bill McKay stands to be at the end of The Candidate. The last line of that movie became a matter of lore — “What do we do now?” asks McKay as his shocking victory sets in. But the really chilling line, the one that ought to define The Candidate, is the blessing/curse that McKay’s father, the superannuated hack, delivers right before that: “Son,” he says proudly, “you’re a politician.” Bernie Sanders tried his Bulworth act, but the voters put up with it only for a manic moment. In the end, they rejected the revolutionary and went with the politician.

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