Alyssa Rosenberg takes on every liberal’s favorite fictional president:

Besides trashing Social Security, the Bartlet Administration had few bold ideas. What was the Bartlet plan to ensure universal access to health care? Or the Bartlet plan to combat global warming? What did President Bartlet do to close the education gap between poor and rich children? Or to ensure that every child who does succeed in high school will be able to pay for college? If anything, his education policy was as much a betrayal as his Social Security debacle. Although the first term Bartlet White House had ambitious plans for education reform, the second term Bartlet wound up supporting school vouchers.

After nearly an entire term in the White House, Bartlet’s economic record was so dismal that it is a miracle he was reelected. Consider his attempt to literally defend this record before God (who he also calls a “feckless thug”): “3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico. Increased foreign trade. 30 million new acres of land for conservation. Put Mendoza on the bench. We’re not fighting a war.”

3.8 million jobs sure sounds like a lot, but at the time Bartlet made this speech, it added up to just over 90,000 jobs during each month of his presidency — far less than the country needs just to keep up with population growth. This kind of stagnant growth could be excused if President Bartlet, like President Obama, presided over our emergence from an historic recession, but the Bartlet Administration experienced no similar economic calamity.

Bartlet does deserve credit for appointing Justice Mendoza, but the Mendoza appointment is overshadowed by his egregious decision to appoint Justice Christopher Mulready. Mulready’s appointment came about as part of a compromise to ensure that Senate Republicans would also confirm a chief justice whose very personal experience with Roe v. Wade would otherwise make her unconfirmable. While there is certainly symbolic value to having a chief justice who once had an abortion, such symbolism will come as cold comfort to the millions of American families impacted every time Mulready joins his fellow conservative jurists engaged in a systematic campaign to rewrite the law to leave workers and consumers powerless against the wealthy and the well-connected.

There are some things here that need to be addressed. For one thing, the show did have President Bartlet implement cap-and-trade way back in the second season, which apparently was completely successful, cost hardly anything, and ended the conversation on the subject for all time. This is admittedly ludicrous, I support cap-and-trade but it would obviously involve some costs to implement. But, regardless, the subject was at least addressed. Bartlet’s Administration also worked to make all college expenses tax-deductible in the fourth season. The Mulready appointment was, I think, a poor decision by the fictitious president (or, more accurately, his staff), but it was made clear in the episode that the Court was mostly composed of moderates in the West Wing universe, so that the maneuver was mostly intended to keep the balance on the Court. Universal healthcare was never really broached because Republicans in control of Congress would never have approved, though the early-2000s satisficing equivalent, the Patient’s Bill Of Rights, was pursued and enacted. So far as I can tell, though, her complaint about the jobs arithmetic is entirely valid.

I think there are essentially two things that need to be addressed here. The first is that many of the things that Alyssa finds most objectionable occurred after Aaron Sorkin had been dismissed from running the show, and was replaced by John Wells, who altered the tone of the show to something much closer to his prior show, the paramedic melodrama Third Watch, and had much less of an interest in tackling issues. The drop in quality is evident practically from the first Sorkin-less episode (seriously, watch it and tell me it’s not, from the stupid dialogue to the irrational character dynamics to a resolution that can only be described in Latin terms), and Wells increased the amount of disaster episodes and ramped up more conventional methods of suspense than what Sorkin and Schlamme typically went for. He even changed the soundrack, a television musical sabotage even worse than what occurred on Star Trek: The Next Generation. To be sure, the show hardly abandoned its subject matter, but many of the most perplexing and cynical decisions made by Bartlet’s White House occurred during the first two seasons after Sorkin’s departure (like screwing over unions, going easy on the oil companies, and appointing a reactionary Mississippian as Attorney General, the latter of which is at least redeemed by Dylan Baker’s presence). I have heard that John Wells is a Republican, so it would make some sense that he’d insert his own politics into the show in much the same way that Sorkin did, and this would explain the schizophrenia neatly. In any event, there’s only so much continuity between the two eras of West Wing, and the show only became good again once the show minimized the actual West Wing material and becoming about something else altogether (i.e. the election).

The other main point is that, while the show aired almost entirely in the 2000s, nearly all the subject-matter experts who worked on the show cut their teeth during the Clinton White House in the 1990s. The show clearly envisioned Bartlet as a Ted Kennedy figure with fewer discipline problems and more of a common touch, but the people who worked on the show managed to implant their own point of view onto the fictitious White House. Bartlet never pushes universal healthcare because Clinton vets like Dee Dee Myers were scarred by the experience in real life and figured the issue was dead. The show explored issues like tobacco regulation that were dicey in the 1990s but were passe even by 2000, and in general The West Wing stayed inside a circa 1995 equilibrium well into the 2000s. The most accurate criticism of Bartlet as a character would be that he had a Ted Kennedy-like political philosophy, compassion and boldness, but a Bill Clinton-like reliance on incrementalism. This was a tension the show tried to justify by having him face an opposition Congress in his first term, despite the fact that the past three new presidents all dealt with Congresses of their own party after being elected. In a lot of ways, Sorkin left the show at the right time, as his unfortunate forays into terror-related plots simply didn’t mesh with the universe he had already set up, and the battles of the 1990s had begun to seem quaint rather than vital. I realize this probably wouldn’t have gone over well (or maybe it might have!), but I am convinced that the West Wing universe ought to have gone through 9/11 along with the real one. This would at least have provided a handy way of disposing of the “Bartlet has MS” plot than the anticlimactic fizzle the show eventually resorted to, could have provided an sturdy concept for the show’s often-aimless third season (remember Bartlet going into therapy?), and it would have made the show’s ongoing importance much more direct.


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