Wednesday, April 10, 2013

(West-)Winging Into the Future

I mentioned last Christmas that probably my favorite gift was a boxed set of West Wing DVD’s.  Sometime around mid-January, husband and I cracked open the box and waded into the 47 discs that comprised the seven-season series.  Last night, we watched the last three episodes.    Everything came to a satisfying conclusion: a vigorous young Democrat was duly installed in the White House to take over for the weary, scandal-worn and not altogether successful Jed Bartlett.  The changing of the surrounding guard mingled the mists of nostalgia with high-powered visions for the future.

The West Wing debuted in 1999.  Many of the writers and consultants were fresh from gigs in the Clinton Administration.  The events that would shape American politics for the first decade of the new millennium were still on the horizon.  The 2000 election debacle.  9/11.  Iraq and Afghanistan.  Filibusters.  Sarah Palin.  All the events that pushed many of us to the far left shoulder of the middle of the political road. 

But in 1999, the country was already well on its way to the paralyzing political polarization in place today.  Republicans, stung by Bill Clinton’s ability to emerge victorious in 1992 despite unceasing attacks on his character and business dealings, hounded Clinton throughout his presidency, seriously hampering his ability to govern.  This was especially true during his second term, when the single-minded refusal of congressional Republicans to bow to the will of the American people and play the hand the election had dealt them reached its crescendo in the sensational impeachment saga of 1998-99.

This was perhaps our first real experience of the “new” Republican modus operandi—the policy that  permanently elevated the promotion, the will and the good of the Republican Party over more trivial matters like forming a more perfect union, providing for the common defense, insuring domestic tranquility, and promoting the general welfare.  In those dismal months, government took an ignominious back seat to party politics.  And has remained there ever since.

So Aaron Sorkin had plenty of raw material to work with.   There was enough historical skullduggery and partisan maneuvering imprinted upon the political consciousness to provide us with a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the highest office in the land. 

What struck me most about those “old” West Wing episodes was the eerie recognition of the absolute topicality of the plotlines.  As if they were ripped right out of the headlines.  Because they were.   More than a decade ago.  The unfortunate truth is, they still are.  Twelve years, and this country is still tossing around the same political footballs.  Abortion.  Equality for women.  Gay marriage.  Medicare reform.  Judicial confirmations.  Gun control.  Budget turmoil.  Illegal immigration and border security. 

Honestly, if I did not KNOW that show was over ten years old, I would have thought it was written last night.  How shameful is it that we can gaze out over the political landscape and see the same legislative turd piles that have been littering the countryside for more than a decade?  Only now they’re bigger and smell a whole lot worse. 

Twelve years.  The Bush Administration managed to spend every minute after the 9/11 attacks, from 2001 to 2008, spinning the terrorist threat into justification to push an agenda that either covertly or blatantly advanced the interests of its deep-pocketed backers.  Leading to, among other things, the ship-wrecking of the American financial system just before GW abandoned ship.  Hard to know whether that was deliberate or accidental.  At any rate, the timing was off…because the economic death-drop seemed to be the determining factor in the Obama victory of 2008.  All the election-tampering and conservative-base-pandering in the world could not blind voters to the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression; not enough to entice them to sanction four more years of the same s**t,  different day.

As we were celebrating the Obama victory, anticipating the return to some version of normalcy in the federal government, Congressional Republicans dug in their heels and declared that their primary goal, the one directive that would form their every action from January 20, 2009 until the next presidential election cycle, was to make this president fail.  And another four years swirled down the toilet.    

So it appears our intrepid elected officials have devised a way to permanently derail the wheels of progress in America.  The issues of real importance, the problems that need to be solved, only get trotted out as hot-button issues at election time (which seems to be ALL the time, these days…) or any time it appears that calm and rationality might try for a serious comeback.  And of course, if we actually addressed these issues and solved the problems, what would be left to throw out there every two years to rile up the base?  No doubt about it.  Our government is Oh. So. Broken.

This is where I fervently wish that life could imitate art.  Because in those final episodes of the West Wing, two presidential candidates who embodied a return to the political center duked it out in the election of 2006 (the fictional election cycle was two years off of the actual…) The candidates actually agreed on many key issues.  Each honored a tacit agreement to reject negative campaigning.  They met in a televised debate that truly was a debate—(that meant-to-be-edgy “live” episode that showcased, among other things, the Democratic candidate’s vigorous defense of the word “liberal.”) 

What rather sappily played as “hopeful” and “visionary” seven years ago, comes off as pure laughable fantasy today—as embarrassingly simplistic as the “morality play” of any sixties sit-com.  We have left centrism so far behind that we couldn’t find our political center with a map and a sextant.

Government—actual legislation—has not been the focus in Washington for a long time.  Almost too long for many people to remember.  I know I’m older than dirt, but as I write this, I think to myself, “Who am I talking to here?  Everybody knows these things.  We all lived through the same past twelve years.”  In reality, if you pay attention to today’s political discourse, it’s as if the world began no more than a couple of years ago and anything prior to that is incomprehensible primordial muck.  The word on the streets is that everything was going along fine until Barack Obama came along with his deficits and his wars and his bailouts that have sent the country to the brink of ruin. 

Even so, at the end of last year, in spite of yet another ugly campaign designed to demonize the president coupled with concerted efforts to disenfranchise voters who might lean in his direction, Obama emerged victorious.  The Republican Party was handed its head in an election that was not nearly as close as they stubbornly broadcast up to the minute their candidate was declared the loser on national television.  For about ninety seconds, we cherished a glimmer of hope that this fact might actually inspire the party to put its failed obstructionist policies in the past and go back to the business of governing.

The first action of the Republican controlled House of Representatives was to trot out a budget plan that had been proposed (and rejected!) by the losing vice-presidential candidate.  “You have to show the people what you believe in!” they asserted, as they invested the first weeks of the tenure of the new Congress into an empty political gesture.  

The “Sequester” became fiscal reality after no compromise between the executive and legislative branches would be reached to circumvent it. 

The Senate recently returned from its Spring break so it can use the filibuster to prevent gun legislation from coming to a vote. 

Not looking too good, is it?

Governing?  Meh.  Bring back  Matt Santos and Arnie Vinick.