What’s the Point?

The other day I re-watched Primary Colors, the Mike Nichols directed adaptation of Joe Klein's novel based upon Bill Clinton's 1992 primary campaign. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Henry Burton, a campaign staffer whom the other professional staffers call "a true believer." The penultimate scene in the film finds Burton telling Governor Jack Stanton (i.e., the Bill Clinton character) that he intends to resign from the campaign. Burton tells Stanton that he wants out of politics because it is too dirty. Instead, he says, he will focus on voter registration. Stanton's response, to paraphrase, is: What's the point? You'll always have to vote for people like me.

Burton doesn't directly answer Stanton's question. But watching this in 2008, while our presidential hopefuls are John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, the point is more apparent than ever. Obamamania is about being the new kid on the block. A fresh face. If young people keep registering and stay active, there will be more "Obamas" even when Obamamania itself inevitabley fades away. By registering voters and encouraging participation in the system, HeadCount is expanding the franchise. When you expand the franchise, you open up the possibilities of future candidates that may seem unelectable by today's standards. Sure, it won't happen over night. It is a never-ending process of reminding elected officials that you exist, that you are paying attention and care about how your government functions or how your tax-dollars are spent.

In Mike Nichols' most recent film, an adaption of another book, Charlie Wilson's War, a democratic congressman from an unknown district in Texas declares that his constituents are not the residents of his district, but the people on Wall Street who finance his campaign. This reminds me of the classic delegate/trustee debate, a philosophical quandry as old as our form of government. The delegate/trustee question asks: Do you elect somebody to represent what you believe and act as your proxy every time he makes a decision? Or do you elect somebody that you trust will make the right decisions, even if unpopular with the constituents at the time that the decision is made. But in this type of debate there is a disconnect between theory and modern practice because it misses the threshold question. What comprises the constituency?

That is the point of voter registration and participation. Not to vote for a specific candidate on a specific date. But to remind public officials that you exist and have interests. That you are a voter and part of the constituency that bears representing.

To put more bluntly what I touched on above, I think that Obamamania is fueled by the fact that he is the youngest person to run for president in an era in which HeadCount and organizations like it are actively registering 18-29 year-olds to vote. If you take into account that this far into the primary season it remains difficult to find an Obama supporter who can articulate Obama's policy on any issue, it is not unreasonable to assume that if a 35-year-old ran for president -- and was just as gifted an orator -- he might also be headed to his party's convention this summer with a chance to become the party's nominee.

That's the point of voter registration and HeadCount. Not to perpetuate the system, but to increase the number of participants. Because that is the only way to increase the number of possible outcomes beyond an up or down vote on the Governor Jack Stanton's of the world.