Did The West Wing Predict the 2008 Primaries?


So, I’ve finally been able to catch up on watching The West Wing, finishing the sixth season last night. Without Sorkin/Schlamme at the helm, it had become a shadow of its former self, using cheap “Must See TV” gimmicks and frenetic camerawork more akin to ER. But the introduction of the campaign midway through the sixth season rejuvenated the drama, reclaiming some of the gravitas that The West Wing was so adept at presenting.

The most interesting thing about watching the sixth season right now, however, is the often eerie similarity between The West Wing and the 2008 primary season. While not perfect, it’s a pretty good analogy:

Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), the Hispanic representative short on experience but inspiring and charismatic, easily compares to Barack Obama. Even their speeches are cut from the same cloth, focusing on hope, innovative solutions, and uniting the country. VP Bob Russell (Gary Cole), the presumptive nominee with perceived weakness in the general, can be seen as Hillary Clinton with a bit of Bill Richardson’s glad-handling and resume-flaunting. I’ve always thought former VP John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) was Al Gore with Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, and Josh’s offer to make him a “party elder” seems to be the role those two men have in the party. The last two may be stretches, but the Santos-Obama connection cannot be dismissed.

For the Republicans, Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) seems to be an idealized version of John McCain, with elements of Arlen Specter: a maverick moderate who fights for pragmatic solutions and regrets the influence of the Religious Right on the GOP. While Vinick’s main difficulty in securing the nomination is his pro-choice record, McCain has his own problems with conservative orthodoxy (immigration, campaign finance reform, the environment, etc). The Reverend Don Butler works as a Pat Robertson clone, but functions as Governor (and Reverend) Mike Huckabee in this analogy.

Despite being dogged by Huckabee, McCain is almost certain to wrap up the nomination in advance of the convention, while the Obama-Clinton battle may continue into the summer. Same thing happened in the West Wing. So, will Obama have to make a passionate speech on the floor of the convention after being asked to drop out for the sake of the party? Will a party elder come to his aid and swing the necessary voting blocs, like Bartlett did for Santos? Anything is possible, and this analogy may prove useful (even though the West Wing implied that the state delegations were winner-take-all, while the Democrats actually use proportional delegation).

One of the intriguing points that I hadn’t thought much about in the real world is the role President Bush will play in the convention. Will the GOP trot out Mr. 24%, 2 months before the election, perhaps letting McCain and Bush relive The Hug? Or will a two-term president be relegated to some opening remarks, pushed aside, and flushed away with the remainder of this administration?

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