Despite the presence of some Occupy agitators, nobody shouts "This is what democracy looks like!" in the irresistible politicians-meet-the-people documentary Caucus, probably because to do so would be to risk inviting despair. AJ Schnack's film follows one of the great humiliations of American life: the slow, soiling ritual of presidential hopefuls pressing the flesh in preparation for the Iowa Caucus — and often discovering that much of that flesh has already been pressed, persuasively, by some other candidate the week before.
"If you change your mind, we'd love your help," we see Rick Santorum tell a Michele Bachmann supporter, one of the 15 folks who bothered to schlub into a Days Inn to hear Santorum speak with less than a week left before the 2012 caucus. Facing a similar situation, Bachmann's husband, the jolly and theatrical Marcus, is more direct than polite Santorum would dare. "Perry? Are you kidding?" he asks a fellow who looks every bit as stubborn as The Music Man insists Iowans are. To try to win a vote away from Texas governor Rick Perry, Bachmann somehow charms the fellow into a spirited thumb-wrestling match, all while candidate Michele, just feet away, declaims her plans to the smallish crowd: building a wall with Mexico, abolishing the tax code, shuttering multiple government agencies. There's joy in her voice as she imagines dismantling the government, just as there is when we here her talking to Wolf Blitzer via satellite. "Americans want an American Iron Lady, and they're flipping to Michele Bachmann," she says, hugging a nonplussed African-American boy her staff managed to find.
The film's subject, the 2012 Republican presidential caucus, determines the form: This is a gently dispirited farce, a spectacle of also-rans and why-did-they-runs desperate to prove their fealty to every qualm and misapprehension of one small slice of an already homogenous population. Bachmann talks up that wall because, 1,000 miles from the border, illegal immigration from Mexico is something Iowans continually drill the candidates about. "Our enemies" are "sneaking across the border," grumbles an old man at a Godfather's Pizza, just after bragging to Santorum about saving Medicare money by having sent back an apparatus to help with his sleep apnea.
Agitated, the man asks: "If we ever have a revolution, who do you think those people are going to be fighting against?"
Rather than assuage the man's paranoia, or pointing out that there is no race war coming, Santorum says, "I support securing the border." He gets hit with more of that kind of talk at a diner months later, when a sweet old heap of a woman insists to him that Mexican truckers are stealing American jobs — they shouldn't be allowed across the border, she declares. Santorum, to his credit, says that Mexican trucks should be held to the same standards as American ones, but that not allowing them into the country is infeasible. In response, the woman stink-eyes Santorum as if he'd just shared with her Dan Savage's definition of his last name.
Since we know none of these candidates will win the presidency, the stakes feel small and comic, especially when we're treated to sights like Ron Paul struggling to make sense of the child-lock on a minivan door, or Mitt Romney unable to hide his disgust at the food on offer at the Iowa State Fair. Romney comes off like an ersatz Jay Leno, a prig whose joking reveals that he considers everyone else in the world dumber than him: "Fried cheesecake? Think I'll be skipping that one. Do they serve a coronary with that? Defibrillator?"
But the laughs, even the bitter ones, don't detract from the urgent truth at the film's center. As clownish pretenders like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich crash the race, and Sarah Palin swans through the state in her bus, not running for anything but the maintenance of her fundraising relevance, Caucus demonstrates as well as any film could the particular rot that prevents the GOP from fielding national candidates. "Did you hear what Rush said today?" a voter asks Bachmann. "What did Rush say?" she asks eagerly. Later, Santorum faces an audience question that opens with "I was watching FOX News today, and —"
Here are purportedly serious candidates for the highest office in America whose agenda is set each day by the conservative-entertainment media complex, an industry designed not to win elections or — God forbid — encourage good governance but to fleece this worried constituency out of as much money as possible. The terms of debate in Iowa and in the national election to follow were set each day by hucksters whose job is to go on TV and the radio and find things to be outraged about.
Caucus is a lively, hilarious, upsetting crash-course in recent history. It's also revelatory at times, especially as it reframes infamous sound bites in their of-the-moment context. Do you recall that Romney challenging Rick Perry to a ridiculous $10,000 bet came just moments after hapless Perry reminded Romney — in his fumbling, halfwit way — of his onetime support of an Obamacare-style "personal mandate" requiring Massachusetts citizens to purchase health insurance? Or Gingrich's personal fan-fiction vision of what the fall election would be like after he wins the nomination: he would challenge Obama to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates of three hours each, with no moderator. That idle fantasy makes more sense once the film documents how little his heart is actually in the campaign. Gingrich, that kid-like Hostess Sno-Ball of a man, tells a reporter how much he hopes to sneak away the next day to go to an out-of-state zoo, which is a hobby of his — "I've been to over 100 zoos," he boasts.
Most revealing — and most painful — is a long scene of Romney awkwardly engaging rural Iowans in a town-hall setting. The candidate gets asked about whether this is now a nation of "givers" and "takers," an amusing question in a state that's engorged-tick fat on ethanol subsidies. Romney responds with the same boilerplate that would ensure his loss in November: Too many Americans, he says, have forgotten John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you..." bit. Instead, Romney says, they ask, "How much free stuff can you give me? How big a check will you give me? How many more benefits will you give me? When we have 47 percent of our people who pay no income tax — and there are some who would raise that number to an even higher level — I think at some point you question 'Can we survive that?'"
He goes on like that, to great audience approval, demonstrating the bitter reality of national Republican politics today: The things a candidate must say to get the nomination are exactly the things that guarantee that candidate doesn't win an election.