On the eve of the budget deadline, a newly reinvigorated Republican congress holds a Democratic president hostage, demanding stringent cuts to the federal budget. His legislative capital spent on a series of contentious and difficult measures, the president seems to have no choice but to concede. Yet when the moment comes, looking coolly into the eyes of the Speaker of the House, the President gets up from the table and walks out. The Federal Government of the United States of America is shut down.
That’s how it happened almost a decade ago, on The West Wing episode entitled ‘Separation of Powers’. Faced by the insatiable, dogmatic small-government mentality of the Republican Party, Jed Bartlet called their bluff and let them feel what life in America without the federal government would really be like. Moreover, against the odds, he spun it into a PR coup, walking the distance between the Oval Office and Congress and explaining to the people he passed why he had chosen to take this drastic step. By the end of the following episode, Bartlet had wrestled the Republicans back into a rational mindset, and agreed on a budget with limited spending cuts and protections for the most important and necessary services.
Of course, that’s television. Recently, faced with the same situation in real life, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, managed to negotiate a compromise with the Republicans just two hours before a shutdown would have occurred. In the wake of the compromise budget, both sides are trumpeting the agreement as a victory: the Republicans because they have achieved the largest ever real-terms budget cut in American history; and the Democrats because they prevented the Republicans from cutting funding for cherished social programmes and gutting environmental regulations. For a brief moment, though, it looked as if it might be possible for Obama to pull a Bartlet: to beat the Republicans at their own game of reckless one-upmanship and to behead the Tea-Party’s demagogues with one swift stroke. You want limited government? Try explaining that to the 800,000 Americans who won’t get paid when the government shuts down!
However nice the fantasy might have been, it was always destined to be just that. The West Wing was a show about testing the furthest limits of the American Constitution, and despite the fact that it constantly portrayed a world of compromise and imperfect solutions, it also gave us hope because, time and again, under the most severe duress, the Constitution proved its durability. Bartlet stood aside as President, allowing a Republican to shepherd the country through a difficult time; he replaced a Vice-President mid-way through his second term; he dealt with congressional inquiries and aides leaking government secrets. Through it all, though, a firm belief in the principles laid down in the constitution was always, repeatedly vindicated.
For President Obama, however, the world is not quite so simple. The first reason is that, obviously, he’s not a fictional character, so he doesn’t have a team of writers to make sure that everything turns out more or less okay. If he calls the Republican Party’s bluff, he lays himself open to the same charges of reckless disregard for the American people which regularly bounce off the elephantine hide of the GOP. The other reason is that today’s Republicans aren’t just the fiscal conservatives intent on slashing government spending faced down by President Bartlet; they’re also social conservatives intent on rolling back or preventing as much social progress as they can possibly manage. So President Obama and today’s Democrats weren’t faced only with the prospect of irrevocable damage being done to government provided social programmes; they also had to contend with Republican attempts to limit access to safe abortions under the guise of cuts to spending on Planned Parenthood. As the Republicans have learned all too well, when faced with such a horrific Scylla and Charibdys of wrong, the Democrats can only rally their forces to defend the cause of social justice, and time and again, they lose the financial battles in favour of defending progressive values.
In real life, unlike on television, there are no easy solutions to these problems. The Republicans have repeatedly made it clear that they won’t be shocked or shamed into partaking in rational political discourse. Yet, however appealing it might be, the Democrats must continue to resist the temptation to fight them on their own terms by, for example, attaching gun control or anti-school-prayer amendments to every bill to cut spending. We stand to gain nothing by allowing American political discourse to become entirely puerile and self-interested, since ultimately, this is the very opposite of the socially progressive beliefs that unite the ideals of the Democratic party. As unglamorous and demoralising as it often is, we must continue the slow, painful process of leading by rational, moderate example. And as we do that, the real lesson we can take from Jed Bartlet’s heroic fictional stand is that we must make sure that the American people take note such actions and understand.