The West Wing

Nothing is more honorable to any large mass of people assembled for the purpose of a fair discussion, than that kind and respectful attention that is yielded not only to your political friends, but to those who are opposed to you in politics.
— Stephen Douglas, from the 2nd Lincoln-Douglas debate (1858)

The American people, Mr. Smiley, would never ever buy this.
— The President (Alan Alda), from Canadian Bacon (1995)

Flash back to the debates between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, these debates were almost universally disappointing. Bush exerted a lot of energy just to keep up with the subject matter, and displayed his self-avowed lack of oratorical skill. Kerry, a master of debate technique, failed to win the “hearts and minds” of swing voters by dint of his uninspired and unspontaneous responses to the issues. Most commentary on the debates at that time was not about the topics covered, but about the candidates’ lackluster “performances” on TV.

On 6 November, The West Wing aired a live debate between the two candidates who hope to succeed President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen): Republican Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Democratic Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), who is Latino. Partly a creative experiment, and partly an effort to boost falling ratings, the broadcast absolutely had the look and feel of a real debate. There were only two commercial interruptions, allowing for a continuity of dialogue. The episode resisted the typical trappings of TV drama — there were no jump cuts following zinging one-liners, no cheesy music leading to breaks. The characters’ lines were scripted and rehearsed, just like real-life candidates, but the actors also improvised, with the pauses and hiccups in their delivery adding to the impression that the debate was “real.” The debate was performed twice, aired live for both the East and West Coasts.

A key to making the debate both dramatic and substantive was Vinick’s opening gambit, challenging Santos to abandon the pre-arranged debate rules in favor of an interactive and open ended exchange. When Santos responded, “Okay, let’s have a real debate,” the candidates proceeded to delve into a fairly frank discussion of a long list of issues that politicians seldom address candidly. Santos’ retort was also a signal flare sent up by The West Wing’s brain trust to nonfiction politicians that the “real” debates they have served up to the public in recent years lack matter and forthrightness, and that they were being schooled on how it ought to be done.

Simply put, it was a good debate. In an hour, the candidates covered national health care, avian flu, taxation in developing countries, school vouchers, Head Start, airline bailouts, illegal immigration, CAFTA, deficit spending, and Presidential veto power. To recap: Sen. Vinick came out ahead on rhetorical points scored, his ability to articulate his agenda — less government, lower taxes — and going on the offensive, rather than reacting to his opponent. Rep. Santos succeeded in demonstrating his personal gravitas, making a passionate appeal directly to the voters and choosing a select group of issues on which to challenge Vinick, including his attention to the growing health care crisis, a pledge not to go to war for oil, and his commitment to make education a centerpiece of his administration.

The poetic license exhibited by the candidates’ casting off of the constraints of time limits and formal debate protocol could easily have derailed this episode and turned it into an intellectual flight of fancy. But the stylized realism of the debate atmosphere kept the episode and the show on track. Not only did the real time presentation have a credible texture, but the auxiliary elements surrounding the broadcast gave the debate a three dimensional quality. The West Wing‘s homepage has campaign websites for both candidates, including their platforms and background information. NBC commissioned pollster John Zogby to poll viewers before and after the debate. The poll found that before the debate, viewers favored Santos over Vinick by 59% to 29%. After, Vinick closed the gap to 54% to 38% with 8% undecided, indicating that he won the debate. That a respected polling outfit would poll for performance results of a fictional debate underscores how image and public perception are integral to the way in which political leaders are selected in a televised age.

Prior to the episode, critics speculated that the writers would allow Vinick to win the debate, but Santos will ultimately win the election. There is a practical reason for this thinking — the Bartlet administration is Democratic, so in order for the show to continue with most of its current cast, the characters would have to find new life in a Santos administration. But it is also worth considering that the formulation of the debate loser winning the election would be a way to mirror the real-life 2004 Presidential election, this time in favor of Democrats. In a fictional context this shields The West Wing from potential criticism that it is biased by left-of-center politics. It also allows the show to critique the pervading ethos of a year ago when a postliterate President was returned to office by taking advantage of the notion that the ability to debate and speak publicly was overrated, unnecessary, and even indicative of a certain elitist do-nothingism.

To a degree, the series’ current transition narrative, from Bartlet to whomever wins the election, is an opportunity for the writers to forecast either whom they would like to see as President in the future, or the President they think we will get. In the Senator Hillary Clinton era, the possibility of the first woman President is not only real, but perhaps likely.

In that vein, ABC’s Commander in Chief seems to be a speculation about what the Presidency of the first woman in that office would be like, both for her and for the U.S. as a whole. Similarly, the idea of a Latino in the White House (Bill Richardson, for instance), while less conceivable in the short term but equally inevitable, is one reason that this season of The West Wing, up to and including the live debate, is compelling television. TV does not tell you what to think, but it does tell you what to think about. The West Wing and Commander in Chief are examples of ideological proxies — their creators’ wish lists. It is a chance for the writers and creators of these shows to push for the type of meaty policy debates and controversial subject matter that they would like to see front and center in the national discourse.

Airing a live Presidential debate two days before a real Election Day was the logical extension of this construct. As executive producer John Wells told The Washington Post, “The whole idea about doing a debate was to try to do a debate in which the characters actually debated… We will try to set up a world in which the candidates can have a real exchange.” In other words, unlike the real Presidential debates, candidates would mix it up, verbally spar and get into the guts of issues.

Refreshingly, in its treatment of a wide range of pressing domestic and international problems, the debate created some resonant moments. Santos said, “To tell you the truth, I’m not crazy about my health care plan, either. It’s what I think I can get through Congress. My ideal plan is very simple. Just delete the words “over 65″ from the Medicare statute.” In a poignant sequence, the conservative Vinick extolled debt relief for sub-Saharan Africa, saying, “We have encouraged those countries to lock themselves into an economic depression… They’ll live lifetimes of unemployment. Disease will be rampant. Poverty will be permanent. Children will be hungry. And our charity will never be enough. Never.” These statements are unlikely to be heard during the next real-life election cycle.

The West Wing had cooperation from the NBC News organization in laying the groundwork for the realism of the debate. Several weeks ago, Chris Matthews appeared on The West Wing as himself, when Vinick was a guest on Hardball. A few weeks later, Alda was interviewed by Chris Matthews on a real episode of Hardball, talking about his portrayal of the senator and Matthews’ fictional appearance on The West Wing. Among other things, Alda discussed his new book, a memoir of his life and career — much in the same way that an actual Presidential candidate would discuss his own memoirs. Throughout the live debate episode, an on-screen graphic reading “Live” and “NBC News” appeared in the lower right hand part of the screen, lending visual authenticity to the broadcast. And finally, the debate was moderated by former NBC News journalist Forrest Sawyer, playing himself and convincingly portraying the tone and stance of a veteran newsman moderating an actual Presidential debate.

There are growing overlaps between politics, news, and entertainment. Hard news has taken a back seat to feature journalism and talk shows, real politics to realpolitik. News programming is driven by ratings. Conversely, entertainment programming has increasingly infused particular points of view within its plotlines. Last year the debate over legalized drugs was front and center in the third season of The Wire (including a cameo appearance by former Baltimore mayor and drug legalization proponent Kurt Schmoke). Shows like Once and Again and Queer as Folk redefine “acceptable” nuclear families. K Street further shifted the boundary between entertainment and politics, placing real political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin in quasi-fictional situations. The logical next step is for a show to portray politicians, not just episodically reacting to the crisis of the moment, but laying out whole political platforms as the candidates on The West Wing did during the debate. To a certain degree, politics has always been about spectacle, but it seems increasingly the case that politicians are putting on a show, and shows are subtly or not so subtly political.

Notably absent from the debate was any discussion of abortion rights, even though the pro-choice position of both candidates has been a part of this season’s story line. Nor was there any reference to gay and lesbian marriage. An irony underscores the contrast between the studied, but ultimately fictional, realism of the live debate versus the real-life myopia of wedge politics. In a real debate, abortion rights and war would have been at center stage because they are issues wielded by candidates to cut their opponents off from constituencies. Discussing hot button issues usually yields little progress in a public policy sense, but it helps collect votes. In this case, the creative decision to leave those issues out of the debate script left room for other, less acrid topics to surface.

At its heart, this experiment was a bow to the idealistic charge that political debate can be spirited without being nasty, and can be analytical without being boring. But because there was no discussion of abortion rights (or Supreme Court appointments), and only one brief exchange about oil wars, it also brings into relief the limitations of not only the live debate episode, but also shows about politicians more broadly. As PopMatters‘ Lesley Smith writes, “The West Wing reflects the political deadlock at the heart of today’s Western democracies, where policies of elected politicians on the left are virtually indistinguishable from those on the right, and only the rhetoric of justification varies.”

It would be nice to think that the live debate on The West Wing will raise the bar for future Presidential debates or even for public political conversation in general. But a component of real world politics is that when an individual reaches the point where he or she has traveled the long road to becoming a Presidential nominee, the tendency is for that individual to become risk-averse and locked into a set of viewpoints. Unfortunately, these are not attributes of stimulating or productive debate. The episode made its case that direct, specific, and thoughtful discussion of issues is lacking in American political discourse. It should leave viewers with a sense that they ought to be getting more from their political candidates, or at least from televised debates. Credit The West Wing for providing one possible model for conducting a real debate.