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With the incumbent President Bartlet approaching his final year in office, politicians on both sides lined up to take over the Presidency. The sixth season of the show, aired in late 2004, dealt with the Primary campaign and followed both the Republican and Democratic races for the nomination. The seventh season concentrated on the race between the two nominees for the job as Leader of the Free World.
The United States was just about to enter the second term of a George Bush Jr. Presidency. The cast and crew of The West Wing were notoriously liberal, so probably took a dim view of Junior's time in office. It could be argued that the Republican presidential candidate in Seasons Three and Four, Governor Robert Richie, was their George Bush. He was a populist Governor from a southern state, he kept his language simple and was surrounded by advisors, the assertion being that they were the people with the ideas; he was just a pretty face. Bartlet's performance in the debates, where he showed that intelligence and substance trumps simplicity, saw him win in a landslide election. Sadly for the writers, this wasn't mirrored when Bush defeated Kerry in the 2004 election.
The writers took the opportunity of a new election to tell the world how they thought politics should be fought. In a change of tack, they would introduce a Republican politician who was not one-dimensionally evil1. By saying how they imagined an election to be fought, they made some spookily accurate predictions for 2008.
The Democratic Race
In 2004 Barak Obama was the rising star in the Democratic Party. The West Wing took him, and built him into the character of Matthew Vincente 'Matt' Santos. While Obama was black, Santos was Latino. Both minorities had not had a representative in the Oval Office2. Santos was in his third term as a Congressman, a relative newcomer; Obama had only been in the Senate for a few years. Both were young, with young families, both had histories of working for their communities and both were charismatic, inspiring orators.
Matt Santos: Don't vote for us because you think we're perfect. Don't vote for us because of what we might be able to do for you only. Vote for the person who shares your ideals, your hopes, your dreams. Vote for the person who most embodies what you believe we need to keep our nation strong and free.
While the Democratic Race started off with seven candidates, soon only three were viable. Santos, the underdog, was up against two more experienced hands, Vice-President Bob Russell and former Vice-President John Hoynes. In the real race, Obama's two main competitors were Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. While Clinton had only been in Congress for a few years, she had a played a big part in her husband Bill's Presidency. Edwards had served a full term in the US Senate and run as the Democratic nominee for Vice-President with John Kerry, before working to help fight poverty in America.
Will Bailey (Chief Strategist to the Vice-President) [About Bob Russell]: He's not stupid.
Josh Lyman (then Deputy Chief of Staff to the President): That's your bumper sticker?
John Edwards had been trailing in most of the early contests, and so backed out of the election. One of the low points of his campaign was the news coverage of one of his aides, who had owned up to having an affair with a videographer hired by the campaign. This aide announced that he was the father of their child together and invited both of them to live with him, his wife and children in their family home. The truth that came out later was that the real father was John Edwards, who had been having the affair while his wife was suffering from terminal breast cancer. Edwards had got his aide to take the flak for the scandal as to not ruin his hopes for the Presidency. In The West Wing world, John Hoynes, who had previously resigned as Vice-President after having an affair, was embroiled in another sex scandal in the days leading up to the California Primary. This put him out of the running.
A Dark Horse
At the start of the 2008 race there was a shadow looming over the Democratic field in the shape of Al Gore, the former Vice-President. Having been behind the film, An Inconvenient Truth, Mr Gore had kept himself in the public spotlight. There was also a large part of the Democratic Party, and the world in general, who believed that he was unfairly robbed of his chance to be President in 20003. Gore didn't stand in the end, despite press speculation. In The West Wing, Governor of Pennsylvania Eric Baker, a former member of Congress, was seen as the likely front runner in the run up to the primaries. In the end he chose not to stand, citing family reasons.
No Clear Winner
Despite its attention to detail, the writers decided to shy away from the complexities of the nomination process. To gain the nomination, the majority of the delegates at the party convention have to vote for you. Normally the nomination is sorted out way before the convention so it is not an issue. The delegates from each state support the candidate who won their state. Or at least that is how it works in The West Wing. In the real world, it is more complex. Some state elections are winner-takes-all, where all the delegates go to the winner. Other states deal out their delegates to the top two, three or four candidates depending on their share of the vote. On top of this, there are also super-delegates who may or may not wear blue capes and can vote for whoever they want.
In The West Wing election and in the 2008 election, no Democratic candidate had the majority of delegates. In the show, Russell held more than Santos, but Santos had picked up a lot of momentum in the last few primaries. John Hoynes and others held the remaining delegates. Deals were hatched, ballots called and Eric Baker appeared from nowhere to try and get the nomination, eventually taken by Santos.
In 2008 Obama had the most delegates, but not quite the majority. Clinton was hoping that the super-delegates would vote her way. In the end, it was sorted before the convention.
The Republican Race
There were three leading candidates for the Republican nomination in the show. Arnie Vinick was a Californian Senator who had been his state's representative in Congress for decades. A skilled campaigner, he was not somebody loved by the party's conservative base as he was a fiscal conservative, but not a social conservative. His moderate views however, gave him a massive appeal to Independents and moderate Democrats. Senator John McCain ran in the 2008 race. He was a long-time member of Congress who had styled himself as a 'Maverick' due to him holding some more middle-of-the-road views. He was not loved by the more religious, conservative base of the Republican party.
Leo McGarry (then Senior Counsel to the President): Ever see Arnie Vinick campaign? He'll go into those high school gymnasiums in Iowa and New Hampshire and blow them all away. He'll shake every hand in the joint, kiss every baby, hug every widow on Social Security and sound smarter and more honest than any Republican they've ever seen. Because he is.
Vinick's closest competitor was The Reverend Butler, a preacher from Virginia and the leader of a major church group. He was beloved of the right wing of the party for his socially conservative views (namely abortion) and was described as having the best sense of humour of all the leading candidates. In 2008 the Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, was one of the leading contenders for the nomination. He was a former preacher with a religious background that appealed to the Bibles and Bunting Republicans. While he won some primaries and had endorsements from the likes of Chuck Norris, he also had to cope with a number of issues about his time as Governor when he released violent criminals who went on to re-offend.
Another The West Wing candidate was former President Glenn Allen Walken, the larger-than-life former Speaker of the House of Representatives who look over the Presidency when Bartlet's daughter Zoe was kidnapped. Walken showed himself to be a commanding figure during a national crisis and did his popularity no harm at all by bombing various parts of the Middle East. He had no corresponding figure in the 2008 race.
There were three other big names in the real-life Republican race, none of whom the show anticipated. Mitt Romney was the Mormon Governor of Massachusetts, a wealthy businessman who was seen as a safe pair of hands to entrust with the economy4. Rudi Giuliani was the controversial former Mayor of New York city. He had implemented a zero-tolerance policy that had led to a marked improvement of the city's reputation for being crime-ridden. He became a national figure with his response to the attack on the World Trade Centers, where he was seen as a figurehead for the city to look to in a time of crisis. Giuliani's campaign however was a disaster; he chose to ignore the smaller states that come up first and concentrate on the larger states. By the time they came around, however, he had lost too much momentum. He also was played in the media as somebody who referenced the terrorist attacks almost constantly. As one observer put it, "a typical Giuliani sentence consisted of a noun, a verb and 9/11."
Ron Paul was a Texas congressman who had a strong conservative voting record and was known as a libertarian. He was able to draw on near fanatical support from his followers, including hundreds of college groups and an extremely vocal Internet fan base.
Vinick took the nomination in the show, and in 2008, there was a middle-of-the-road Republican running for the White house.
Santos's Achilles' heel was his lack of experience in domestic and foreign policy. In order to compensate for that he brought in Leo McGarry as the candidate for Vice-President. McGarry was the former Chief of Staff to Bartlet, and before that was the Secretary of Labour. McGarry had spent years guiding policy through the legislative branch and dealing with world leaders. Obama was in a similar position so turned to Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who had been a Senator for 26 years and Chairman of a number of congressional committees. Even though both Santos and Obama were running as fresh faces with new ideas, they both had to rely on having experienced Beltway5 heads to give their campaigns credibility.
McCain and Vinick were in different positions. They had the experience, what they needed was a reason for the base of their party to go to the polls. They had appeal with the moderates and independents, where campaigns are normally won, but with their younger opponents energising their parties, they needed the backing of the right wing Republicans6. However, neither of them were popular with that branch of the GOP7.
They both had similar solutions. They chose for their Vice-Presidents young governors from rural states who had values that appealed to the religious right. Vinick went with Ray Sullivan, a former Prosecutor who was a regular church-goer. Sullivan proved to be an effective campaigner and useful on the ticket.
And then there was Sarah Palin. Richard Schiff, who played Toby in The West Wing said that the show would never have had a character like Palin because nobody would have believed them. She had only been the Governor of Alaska for just over a year before she was picked to run. As the Vice-Presidential candidate on McCain's ticket, she made his staff cringe with a string of gaffs where she revealed she had little idea about foreign affairs, the role of parts of the government and even her opponent's name. She also started criticising the policies of McCain.
I don't believe she's ready to be President of the United States, which is the job of the Vice-President. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Sen. McCain made.
– General Colin Powell; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies
They are also building schools for the Afghan children so that there is hope and opportunity in our neighboring country of Afghanistan.
As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day?
..Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers. And George Washington, he saw faith in God as basic to life.
– Sarah Palin
Both campaigns were hotly contested, and in both there was a late surge for the Democratic candidate. Vinick was clearly leading until a few weeks out when a nuclear accident cost him dearly, levelling the polls. While Obama had the lead early on, throughout early September McCain was leading in many of the polls before Obama pulled ahead again.
The West Wing campaign was cleanly fought and generally positive, with Santos trying to appeal to the aspirations of Americans and Vinick trying to bring the country together. While the real-life campaign wasn't as dirty as some previous campaigns, it wasn't all sweetness and light. The Republicans tried to turn Obama's intellect and way with words against him by insinuating that intelligent people can't be trusted with the needs of average Americans, something they had done effectively against John Kerry four years previously.
McCain held an unpopular opinion in that he was a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, a war that was increasingly being seen by the American public as a costly misadventure. Vinick on the other hand was a major supporter of nuclear power. In the debates, he was vocal about it, however a few weeks later there was a major nuclear incident in a power plant that he lobbied to open, that caused much of the public to re-evaluate their views of the technology8.
A Tragic Loss
John Spencer, the actor who played Leo McGarry died during filming. In the show, his character was found dead in his hotel room on election night.
One difference was the margin of victory in the election. In the real election, Obama won just over 52% of the popular vote, however thanks to the electoral college system, he got nearly 68% of the electoral college.
Santos on the other hand won by a single state, winning Nevada by a few thousand votes.
Both electoral maps were unusual as both Santos and Obama won states that normally sided with the Republicans. In The West Wing, Vinick was able to win traditionally Democratic states such as California.
A Vanquished Opponent
When Santos was forming his administration, he was able to convince Vinick to join the Cabinet as Secretary of State, America's ambassador to the world. Santos justified his choice of Vinick as he had developed strong ties with many world leaders during his time in the Senate. The writers tried to envisage an America where members of both parties were willing to work together.
Obama chose to use Hillary Clinton's foreign contacts when he appointed her as Secretary of State. In one way this was to help unify the party, as Clinton was a powerful figure that had a great deal of support.
Governor Sullivan was installed as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination at the next election. The presidential campaign had brought him from relative obscurity into being a national figure.
Sarah Palin was thrust into the limelight thanks to the campaign. It was generally assumed that she was the leading candidate for the Republican nomination as she energised a section of right wing voters known as the Tea Party. They favoured people who didn't come over as traditional politicians and preached about low taxes ahead of environmental responsibility and gay rights.
When Palin walked out of her job serving the people of Alaska before her term was due, it was seen as another step towards her run for the presidency. This was despite her having a long record of gaffs and having less than three years of executive experience, running one of the least populous states in the Union. Eventually she decided not to run, the Tea Party being represented by a range of candidates who all mixed gaffs, a low tax agenda and casting doubt on gay rights, climate change, and medical science.
While the writers of The West Wing saw the two parties working together for a better country, the two real-life parties couldn't manage that. The energised Tea Party had made all Republican congressmen live in fear of their jobs, so opposed all Democratic policies especially tax hikes. This led to a number of standoffs, with the whole federal government hours from being shut down. In November 2011, a joint super-committee tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion from the budget broke up without result as the Democratic members refused to cut benefits for pensioners and the Republicans refused to raise taxes on high earners.
Sadly, four years on from Obama's election, the visions that The West Wing writers had of a young, energetic figurehead uniting the country have failed to be realised. American politics is more divided and more divisive than at maybe any stage since the Civil War.