Monday, November 07, 2005

Ain't fake politics fun?

As I'm sure everyone knows (the commercials were pretty ubiquitous), the West Wing live debate between Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda (oops, I mean Santos and Vinick) aired last night. (Click here for Entertainment Weekly's live blog of the episode.)

True to form, post episode "discussion" seems to want to focus on who "won" the debate. If anyone has a strong opinion one way or another, I'd love to hear it, but on some level I'm more interested in viewing the exercise from the left-ish warm-and-fuzzy liberal wish fulfillment lenses that seem so fitting when the show is at its best.

More than many other shows, The West Wing seems to treat itself as an exercise in politics as they should be. (This is especially illustrative in contrast to Gena Davis' Commander in Chief, which is even more an exercise in wish fulfillment, but seems to have used that premise as a license to entirely disregard plausibility. For example, there's no way that any first lady would continue to reside in the White House after the death of her husband.) The entire debate episode launched itself from that premise when the two candidates, who never much liked the idea of a two-minute-at-a-time debate, even though their staff appeared to insist on it, spontaneously agreed to go no-holds-barred.

While the episode wouldn't have been much good without such an event, it also served, not entirely intentionally, I think, as an illustration of why it could never, ever happen. Hillary Clinton's opponent for the Senate effectively lost the election when he stepped out from behind his podium and addressed her directly during their debate. Without the comfort zone of the West Wing's script, such tactics tend make both the viewing and immediate audience very uncomfortable. Violating the other person's space looks very aggressive, in an already confrontational atmosphere.

Even beyond the wandering, insults, yelling, and loss of control of the audience, the whole undertaking seemed a bit stilted. Alda is the more experienced stage actor (and I would argue the better actor as a whole), and he seemed much more comfortable and delivered, I thought, a much more nuanced performance than Smits. Smits, however, had the script on his side. While, as a whole, the writers seems to put good words in the characters' mouths, and seemed to want each character to explain a popular political philosophy as best they could, I think it came across, in the end, that they sided with Santos. His position contained more of a concrete vision, and more proposals to achieve that vision. Vinick, at the end, had little more to promise than less government and a tax cut.

Personally, I agree that the liberal agenda is better for the country than the conservative agenda. (At least in terms of what passes for "liberal" and conservative in the contemporary popular political argument.) At the same time, it seems cheap, and sadly dishonest to reduce the conservative platform to "less taxes, less government," particularly in contrast to a vigorous, concrete liberal platform.

Would that it weren't true, but there is far more than that to the conservative argument and appeal, and far less, at the moment, to the liberal.

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