While, whether he realized it, Republican Rep. Vance McAllister echoed the fictional Jefferson Smith in words, his going to Washington, DC might have more in common with Democrat Pres. Barack Obama’s entry into the White House.
In 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes the Washington, the protagonist is a political rube, appointed to fill an expiring term of a senator precisely because he is thought to be malleable by sinister forces wishing to control him, who expresses that he’s never been to the nation’s capital. This leads to a humorous interlude where he disappears from his handlers to go on a tour of Washington with other, ordinary out-of-towners.
McAllister, who also came out of nowhere, differs in that he was elected last weekend in his own right, and based upon a carefully-crafted rather than a happenstance image as a political outsider. As part of that credentialing, he repeatedly mentioned that he’d never been to D.C., although is more politically aware than Smith was initially in the film. The question is, despite his protestations of not being a politician, perhaps he’s a little too politically aware for the good of the district’s majority – or the reverse.
It’s hard not to find parallels between McAllister’s getting this job with how Obama got the presidency. Obama, with no executive experience at all and minimal legislative experience at the federal level, proclaimed that he was a different kind of transcendent politician, where only his vision could bring together parties to solve problems, where somehow ideology didn’t matter. Implicit in this presentation was his symbolism of a bi-racial man who came from modest means to reach the highest office in the land, where voting for him could offer ratification of the good intentions of the voter to affirm this political rags-to-riches was possible in America, and all of the branding that the voter was not racist it implied.
McAllister’s rap was of a self-made, successful man whose very insulation from the political world made him qualified to best understand policy challenges facing the country. A theme he emphasized was that he would work with all to find solutions, implying that a hidebound political establishment, of which he identified his runoff opponent as a card-carrying member, inhibited this. He was for every broad platitude that large majorities in the district favored but, unlike other candidates (and like what Vice Pres. Joe Biden said in another context about Obama), “clean” because of his relative political inexperience.
While Obama’s election, as presidential elections are most likely to do, featured a heavy dose of low interest, low information voters, McAllister’s appeared to have a disproportionate turnout among this kind for a special election. And to these voters, the shell images they presented were all that mattered. For others in the case of Obama, they could see clearly through this to grasp his essential doctrinaire faith in liberalism if only because so much attention is paid to presidential campaigns, even if these voters are not enough to determine such an election either way.
As for McAllister, we don’t really know. His rhetoric and associations on the campaign trail suggest conservatism, even as some expressed issue preferences seem more at home with liberalism. With a paucity of publicity beyond campaign advertisements about who he really is, even to those with greater interest in politics it allows them to read into his projected image whatever they like. In that sense, the Obama and McAllister campaigns and projections of selves both succeeded in making them empty shells to many to encourage successfully to read their best hopes into each.
And, both proved to be winning opportunists. Obama skillfully saddled a drifting Republican Party with the image he chose tied to negative fallout of policies he and Democrats had championed, in a preview of the now-famous Limbaugh Theorem. McAllister took advantage of the changing of the guard in the state GOP, where a clock inexorably ticks away the power of Gov. Bobby Jindal as he transforms into a lame duck. It turns out that, after he made the runoff, some heavy hitters who in the past backed Jindal, who was known to support McAllister’s runoff opponent, came on board his campaign. He also attracted the disgruntled who lost influence with Alexander’s departure, such as Adam Terry, the administrative assistant for his predecessor and now, surprise, his as well (an interesting revelation insofar as McAllister tarred his runoff opponent as beneficiary of an inside deal to get him the seat, and now it seems he worked an inside deal with Terry.)
The migration of some Republican elites from supporting a Republican candidate favored by state and national Republicans in office to another happens when a vacuum is created by diminishing power of those who have held power in the state. By creating an alternative power source, they magnify their own influence in having options to prevent dependence on any one. Which brings up one final intriguing question about McAllister going to Washington: does part of that natural attempt by elites to expand influence extend to McAllister’s job itself?
Jefferson Smith at first was overwhelmed and depended greatly on henchmen from the political machine in his state to do his job. But his eyes eventually opened and he repudiated those associations to overthrow their influence in the Senate. Not that big GOP donors and Alexander staff holdovers who served the least conservative member of the state’s Republican delegation pose any corruption threat, but just how much influence will they have over McAllister relative to that of himself and his constituents over his decisions?
Regarding Obama, his lack of executive experience and personnel choices to compensate in no way altered his pursuit of far-left policies. But it’s much harder to say with McAllister because not only did his campaign deliberately confuse on his issue preferences, but also we don’t know in temperament what combination of puppet or puppeteer will he adopt. Even in his initial comments after his swearing into office, he offered no certainty in that he said he would “probably vote conservative most of the time. But … there will be times he’ll vote differently from his GOP colleagues.”
So while the national press might find the lazy comparison of real-life McAllister to fictional Smith compelling, the more relevant question is just how alike are McAllister and Obama.