Joseph Cao was a Congressman who voted for Obama Care before he voted against it. This is one of the factors that led to his defeat when he ran for a second term as a U.S. Congressman from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. The producers of Mr. Cao Goes to Washington would have the viewer believe that Cao’s defeat had more to do with racial partisan politics but that may be an overstatement; an attempt to find more meaning than is supported by the facts.
Mr. Cao, a once politically independent Vietnamese-American who became a Republican, was elected to go to Washington in 2008. His election was such a surprise that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory with 78 percent of the vote in the Second Congressional District, the national media came to call Cao “The Accidental Congressman.”
Cao is a former seminarian whose pro-life Catholic views colored his approach to political issues, and may have put him out of touch with his poor, primarily African-American constitutents. A key issue, as stated by an African-American community spokesman in the film, is that when speaking to constituents, Cao would say that he would do whatever was necessary to secure government funds and services for his district (i.e., a big government approach); but when in the company of big donor Republicans, he would oppose taxes on the rich and take other highly conservative positions (i.e., a small government approach). It was transparent enough for the voters to catch on quite easily.
Mr. Cao Goes to Washington seems to argue that Cao was roughed up by the vicissitudes of politics, but then politics is not bean bag; it’s a sport for big boys and big girls, and the thin-skinned should not apply. When the Democrats nominated Cedric Richmond, a younger African-American version of President Obama, Cao chose to go negative against Richmond, something that one of his key political advisors (as seen near the end of the documentary) viewed as a basic mistake. Cao clearly worked hard for his constituents after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, and perhaps his campaign should have focused, first and foremost, on his successes in securing services and federal rebuilding funds for his heavily-impacted district.
Cao’s strategy was proven to be wrong on Election Day 2010, as African-American voters in the District turned out at twice the usual rate – despite a heavy rain – to vote for the challenger Richmond. The election was held just days after Cao had lost his father, and he appears to be devastated and disoriented at the end of the film.
This is an excellen documentary, and it’s fully engaging. However, I suspect that it offers fewer lessons than intended for the average viewer since Cao is somewhat less of a sympathetic figure than the filmmakers intended. Joseph Cao seems to have been bitten by the hubris that infects most politicians, and he appears to have adopted a world and political view that was strangely narrow, based more on his religious training and personal background than on the needs of the generally impoverished voters that he was elected to serve.
In the film, we’re expected to believe that Cao honestly viewed President Obama as a close friend, despite the fact that they were of different political parties. (Sixty-eight percent of Cao’s votes over two years were supportive of the administration.) The friendship would not survive Cao’s position change on Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, which led to distrust on both sides. Joseph Cao, like too many once-idealistic human beings, attempted to play both sides against the middle.
The lesson of Mr. Cao may be that a politician is free to change his or her views on major issues, but doing so without sufficiently explaining those changes to one’s constitutents can be, and often is, fatal.
Mr. Cao is a tough reflection of a tough town. It succeeds when brightly reflecting the political wars that rage in our capital. It’s less successful when viewed as a tribute to a flawed, transitory political figure.