The Talking Lion

Friday, June 03, 2005

Get your game on

It’s 1:00 am and here I am watching cable TV and fantasizing about… Martin Sheen. Well, not really Martin Sheen, but Josiah Bartlet. That’s right, more West Wing re-runs. I can’t get enough because Bartlett is the greatest president there never was. And I wish he was not some sort of fictional character. I keep hoping that maybe he is real. Maybe I’ve been watching too many West Wing re-runs…

But anyway, tonight’s episode is one of my favorites. It is the lead-up to the final debate of the Bartlett’s re-election campaign. Most of the staff is uneasy about how the president will do and is struggling to come up with a good strategy and are worried that they will not be able to counter the ability of president’s opponent (a Republican from the South who is not exactly an intellectual heavyweight – sound familiar?) to simplify complicated issues and come up with the “ten-word answer” that people can understand and remember and that sounds good on the evening news. In the end, they decide that “there's no such thing as too smart” and the president should go out there and play the game on his own terms.

Here are some highlights from the debate in the episode. I definitely stood up and cheered multiple times:

The rules for tonights debate are as follow: A candidate will be asked a question by one of the panelists and he will have 90 seconds to respond. His opponent will then have 60 seconds with which to ask a question and get an answer-- though it must be limited to the same topic. There will be two minutes for closing statements at the end. By virtue of a coin toss, Governoe Ritchie, the first question is for you.

Governor Ritchie, good evening.

Good evening.

Perhaps the biggest philoshophical difference between you and the President is over the role of the federal government itself and whether national problems really have national solutions. Can you explain your view?

Well, first, let me say good evening and thank you. It's a privilege to be here. My view of this is simple-- ...we don't need a Federal Department of Education telling us our children have to learn Esperanto, they have to learn Eskimo poetry. Let the states decide. Let the communities decide on health care, on education, on lower taxes, not higher taxes. Now, he's going to throw a big word at you-- "unfunded mandate." If Washington lets the states do it, it's an unfunded mandate. But what he doesn't like is the federal government losing power. But I call it the ingenuity of the American people.

President Bartlet, you have 60 seconds for a question and an answer.

Well, first of all, let's clear up a couple of things. "Unfunded mandate" is two words, not one "big word." (They cheer backstage) There are times when we're fifty states and there are times when we're one country, and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida didn't fight Germany in World War II or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That's a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year-- from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry. 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion, and I'm supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?

Fuck yeah. High five, Bartlett. But wait, it gets better….

...and the partisan bickering. Now, I want people to work together in this great country. And that's what I did in Florida -- I brought people together -- and that's what I'll do as your President. End the logjam, end the gridlock, and bring Republicans together with Democrats, 'cause Americans are tired of partisan politics.

Mr. President?

Actually, what you've done in Florida is bring the right together with the far right. And I don't think Americans are tired of partisan politics; I think they're tired of hearing career politicians diss partisan politics to get a gig. I've tried it before, they ain't buying it. That's okay, though. That's okay, though, 'cause partisan politics is good. Partisan politics is what the founders had in mind. It guarantees that the minority opinion is heard, and as a lifelong possessor of minority opinions, I appreciate it. But if you're troubled by it, Governor, you should know, in this campaign, you've used the word "liberal" seventy-four times in one day. It was yesterday.

Boo-fucking-yah! If only the Republicans’ hypocrisy could be exposed so articulately and so awesomely by someone in the Democratic leadership as Bartlett does in the episode. But wait, there’s more:

Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is centerpiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?

You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason-- the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

Mr. President, your rebuttal.

There it is. That's the ten-word answer my staff's been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They're the tip of the sword. Here's my question: what are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I'll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while... every once in a while, there's a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren't very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that's way too big for ten words. I'm the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.

WHAT!? You mean the world is complicated? It’s not black and white? Sometimes things have layers to them? Issues can be difficult to solve? There’s more to it than simply their hating us for our freedoms? Could that be?

Oh man.

I don’t care how bad it hurts to wake up from this dream after every episode. I’m just glad this show exists so I can drift away to this wonderful world where Josiah Bartlet is our president and all is right with the world….


  • A-fucking-men, brother.

    By Blogger Arun, at Friday, 03 June, 2005  

  • Sean,

    Lets consider a few things about this dialogue before you just count it as a victory for the superior political ideology that is American liberalism. One, this is a fictional show produced by a well-known Democratic party loyalist. In my view, this explains why the questions directed and answers given by the Republican nominee are nonsense, and the responses given by the Democratic POTUS are so well-delivered and void of any policy implications. Hooray, we have a President on the West Wing who is good with semantics!

    First, Gov. Ritchie is given 90 seconds, and appears to take only 20, to explain why "conservatives" don't "like" the federal government. To answer this question he throws a jab at the DOE, a worthy foe, of course, but one which is easily rebutted by hateful rhetorical spewing from the left about conservatives hating education and, by default, poor minorities. The answer Ritchie gives is a terrible one, not because he is wrong but because he sets himself up so easily to lose the round to Bartlet. There are numerous valid reasons why the federal government shouldn't be involved in education, why taxes should be lower, why there shouldn't be a national pension system or health insurance concern, or for that matter constant military spending, federal highway projects, an EPA, federal unemployment benefits, and the list goes on. In fact, there's a book out there which basically answers these questions so well that a roomful of DNC members couldn't script a believable rebuttal for noble Josiah, Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. As Firedman articulates, its not that all these things aren't worthy, or that there shouldn't be a federal government, but that most things are done more quickly, efficiently, and yield more utility if they are done at the local level.

    Furthermore, a true believer of these principals (and not a Florida governor or an incumbent President looking to get reelected) would answer an emphatic YES to the question of whether the Fed can have the money back (meaning the 12.6 billion in grants). Of course, this YES would be followed-up with a new demand, that being that federal taxes be lowered because the money belongs to the people, or, in a federal system where the services that the 12.6 originally went to must now be funded by the state or cut, the money needs to be taxed by the state and used by the state - not to cross the border again. This is perfectly consistent with the libertarian viewpoint about the role of different governmental units in a federalism... "Fed, don't give us grants. Fed, your role is minimal - nat'l defense, money supply, overarching laws - after that we the states will provide services for our residents. These services need tax revenue to work. Our people understand this, and if they don't like the basket of public goods in our state or the tax rates needed to fund it they are mobile and can vote with their feet (or, of course, vote with a ballot for a new government)."

    No one reading this post, or anyone who has watched the West Wing, could possibly expect a well-articulated defense of conservative or libertarian views out of a right-wing character. We get a whole lot of reasons to believe liberals save the world with their very being, but not a lot on the other side. You, of course, may believe this, but I don't. In the present political climate, it is unfortunate that my hunch about you (someone who I can only assume is a good guy, and who obviously keeps good - though with Pat questionable - company) is that you reject any view about governance you deem to be conservative due to opposition of the Bush Administration. To be sure, they are not good ambassadors of the title "conservative" at least from an economic or federal power perspective. They are not classical liberals or present-day libertarians. The roots of the beliefs that Sorkin tried to write for Ritchie come from classic liberalism or present-day libertarianism, but he tries to convince you that they are dumb views, and that they are the keys to a world where everyone is forced to pray and have their unwanted children.

    On another point, for a highly respected economist who, I believe, won the Nobel Prize before the presidency, Bartlet does a very poor job of showing it on the show. It is my contention that you don't win the Nobel Prize in economics if you aren't a liberal economist. That means, among other things, Bartlet must be quite pro-NAFTA, pro-WTO, and somewhere in his apolitical mind see the benefits of low tax rates. This means, unlike the republican nominee, Bartlet could give a 90 second defense or rejection of tax cuts. Ritchie says 10 words about one of the centerpieces of his campaign in a presidential debate and we are supposed to believe this is a fair representation of republicans!? The fact is, taxes should be cut for hundreds of reasons. If you had to pick one, even to dumb it down to the masses, it wouldn't be to just say "the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does." The fed is quite good at spending money, truth be told, people are not. There are many reasons why people should spend a money, especially to help an economy. Any republican nominee could articulate these, yet Ritchie doesn't. Really great representation, don't you think? Yes, you do, actually. You seem to think republicans feel the world is black and white, "taxes bad, government bad, tax cuts good no matter what," and those Bushisms: "theyre with us or against us, they hate us for our freedoms," etc etc.

    Josiah Bartlet and his army of writers couldn't stand a chance against a true believer in small government and liberal economics, because he doesn't ever debate the issues! He's real good at pumping up the democrats in the audience by making the other side look stupid, but when was the last time he did this in a true policy debate?

    By Blogger Kevin, at Friday, 03 June, 2005  

  • Well, I can see your point, but given the conservative dominance of television and radio newsmedia, I'm pretty OK with a vicious pornographic smackdown of a fictional Bushish presidential candidate.

    By Blogger Patrick, at Friday, 03 June, 2005  

  • I don't know that I agree with your claim of conservative dominance in tv and radio newsmedia, but your acknowledgment of this, and your pleasure with said pornographic smackdown, would seem to leave you handcuffed to admit a liberal dominance of Hollywood, and thus non-news related television and radio media.

    By Blogger Kevin, at Friday, 03 June, 2005  

  • Well, no one can deny that most Hollywood money does not flow the direction of GW. I think that the "liberal bias" is a myth, and that the only real bias is towards laziness, pandering, and showmanship. But conservatives to a large extent have come to dominate MSNBC and to some extent CNN, and FOX News just is a conservative network. And nothing compares to conservative ("conservative") dominance of talk radio. Which I think has more to do wtih the fact that liberals have better taste, and so listen to good music in the car. I can only take so much talk, even NPR. But the West Wing feels an emotional need of my side of the aisle. Let us have it. Besides, I think that Republicans on the show are portrayed BETTER than the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

    By Blogger Patrick, at Friday, 03 June, 2005  

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