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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The politics of apolitical TV

We've been watching and enjoying the new HBO comedy Veep, which follows the exploits of a marginalized, marginally competent woman VP. The show draws a lot of humor from the way the titular Veep flails away, constantly asking her secretary whether the President has called (he never has), and working (not very well) on two token, dead-end policy items the President has given to her--"clean" jobs (and the issue is whether to put someone from the oil industry on the VP's clean-jobs commission) and filibuster reform.

The show (and commenters on the show) have made much of the show's supposedly apolitical approach. The President never is seen, no one mentions which party is in power, and the policy goals discussed are supposed to be non-partisan. This is at least supposed to be a far cry from The West Wing, which featured what I once called a "Democratic president that real Democrats only dream about-imagine a President with Bill Clinton's political skills, Michael Dukakis' policy goals, Jimmy Carter's commitment to monogamy, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's intellect."

So does the show succeed at being apolitical?

Some Republicans initially complained that the show was another example of Democrats making fun of Sarah Palin, although that is only true if all depictions of an in-over-her-head female politician now are parodies of Sarah Palin. That we now associate this sort of character with Palin just shows the difficulty of political parody--truth has surpassed satire (part of why I actually find it hard to watch The Daily Show at times).

But filibuster reform is not an apolitical issue, at least in the current environment. It is something strongly wished for by many liberals and progressives, particularly among academics and political commentators, who view the Senate as a defective, unrepresentative, anti-democratic institution made worse by the costless, silent, and routine filibuster that is functionally an all-purpose super-majority requirement. Now that might be a product of momentary political majorities and President Romney and a 52-seat Republican Senate would be pushing the elimination of the filibuster as a matter of patriotic duty (actually, this may be a virtual 2013 certainty if events unfold that way). But the notion that the Senate needs reforming, given its unrepresentative nature, is a decidedly lefty view right now.

The last point is to consider what it says that filibuster reform is one of the symbolic-but-pointless issues that a President would dump on a marginalized VP. It makes sense in one way, in that it has no chance of going anywhere, so it is precisely the no-chance symbolism you pawn off. On the other hand, knowing the reality of routine filibusters and what they have wrought shows this as a genuine problem with an actually attainable solution; one would hope a President would get behind this as a real issue in the interest of his political agenda. But from a show's standpoint, it is the type of procedural/technical concern about which the public does not care--and thus neither would the President.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 2, 2012 at 09:57 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics, Television | Permalink


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Thinking about it, it makes sense for the VP to be in charge of filibuster reform, as (s)he is the President of the Senate and the "nuclear" proposals that have been mentioned in the past usually involve the VP to one degree or another (e.g., the VP overrules the Parliamentarian's finding that the filibuster is constitutional). This is the rare area where the VP actually has more power than the President.

That said, if the push for filibuster reform were entirely "diplomatic" (i.e., trying to convince senators to vote for reform), then giving it to the VP is probably just a way of saying it's not a legislative priority.

Of course, the real way to obtain filibuster reform is to do so at the very beginning of the Congress; the filibuster is contained in the Senate rules, which are set by majority vote every two years (though I believe there is long practice of having supermajorities). If you really wanted to abolish the filibuster, you'd just have to get 50 plus the VP to vote for a set of rules that excludes it. But once those rules have been set, you need to comply with the 3/5 of all senators rule, absent a parliamentary finding that the rule is unconstitutional.

Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | May 2, 2012 11:04:25 AM

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