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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Political Clairvoyance of The West Wing

Like most youngish, over-educated lefties of the past decade, I was a big fan of The West Wing. I even wrote about the many issues of presidential succession that the show portrayed during its seven-year run. This election cycle has been interesting for different West Wing reasons: The show's rough political clairvoyance.

For non-viewers, the last two seasons of the show were devoted to the race for the Democratic nomination and the general election to replace President Bartlet. The featured candidate was Matthew Santos (played by Jimmy Smits), a young, charismatic, relatively inexperienced minority member of Congress, who comes from nowhere to win the nomination against the sitting Vice President following a contentious and wide-open Convention and, ultimately, a close election that came down to the popular vote in one Mountain West state, maybe Nevada or New Mexico.

I read a few months ago that Santos was expressly modeled on Barack Obama, who had just been elected to the Senate and had given the well-received 2004 DNC speech. And I recently had been thinking that Santos' opponent might have been modeled on what many Democrats believed John McCain was, at least prior to McCain's political conversion/awakening over the past year, Democrats taking a closer look at his record, and the recent nasty turn the campaign has taken. The GOP nominee, Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda in an Emmy-winning turn)) was an experienced, socially moderate, fiscally conservative foreign-policy focused western-state (California) Republican Senator, who often disagreed with his own party, was often derided as a RINO (Republican-in-Name-Only), who overcame early poor showings to win the nomination, and who would have considered serving in a Democratic administration. In fact, we first meet the Vinick character when Bartlet offers him the job of U.N. Ambassador (which he turns down to run for President) and the show ends with Vinick agreeing to serve as Santos' Secretary of State (do not count on that last one happening in real life).

So I was interested in this take on Obama's selection of Joe Biden as running mate:

And what, pray tell, does the captivating Democratic candidate do when it comes time to pick a running mate? He chooses an older member of the party establishment, with a background in foreign policy, who helps bring heft to the ticket.

Santos picked Leo McGarry (played by the late John Spencer), who had been Bartlet's chief-of-staff and a former cabinet member, a long-standing party leader, a smart politician and tough political fighter. Not exact parallels, because Biden's experience is purely in the Senate. And Biden still had presidential aspirations, which McGarry did not. And we have to hope Biden's heart is in better shape than McGarry's (and Spencer's). But close enough to make this an interesting conversation.

By the way, if you are going to use the show to play the futures market on McCain's running mate, Vinick chose the governor of West Virginia, a hard-right, crime-fighting social conservative. Does anyone on the supposed short list fit that bill?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 24, 2008 at 02:58 PM in Culture, Law and Politics | Permalink


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