I was, am and forever will be, a fan of The West Wing. It was the best of what television could do. It was one of those rare weekly shows for which I would alter my schedule just to watch. I have all 7 seasons on DVD and have nearly worn them out. I would consider myself to be an expert on the NBC drama, The West Wing.
The final season of the show focused heavily on the campaign to elect the replacement for the outgoing Jed Bartlet. Democrat Matthew Santos of Texas opposed Republican Arnold Vinnick of California. Now, The West Wing was decidedly left leaning in its philosophy. Regular viewers should have been pretty confident in the outcome of the election. But, the writers kept up the suspense for most of the season. In the end, however, Congressman Santos won a slim victory over Senator Vinnick.
As in most things, it was the journey, not the destination, that was the most compelling story. And in many ways, the journey of Matthew Santos to the White House parallels the current real-life election. Let's now examine the incredible similarities between a fictional presidential election contested 3 years ago and the historic contest of the present day.
On The West Wing, the Democratic candidate was a young, Latino, somewhat inexperienced Congressman. He was attractive (portrayed by Jimmy Smits), had an attractive wife and 2 young children. Congressman Santos was relatively unknown outside of his district at the beginning of the campaign. Yet, despite the odds and the urging of many party officials, he defeated the sitting Vice President for the nomination. He then picked an older, experienced politician (Leo McGarry) to be his running mate.
Barack Obama, the real Democratic candidate, is a young, African-American, somewhat inexperienced Senator. He is attractive, has an attractive wife and 2 young children. Senator Obama was relatively unknown outside of Illinois prior to giving a rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Yet, despite the odds, he defeated Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady and current Senator from New York, for the nomination. He then picked an older, experienced Senator (Joe Biden) to be his running mate.
On The West Wing, the Republican candidate was an older, White, very experienced Senator. He was somewhat unpopular with the base of the party because of his views on social issues (pro-choice, anti-gun). He was viewed as a moderate, and was popular with independents and conservative Democrats. He was, initially, not a shoe-in for the nomination. But he ultimately prevailed. He then picked a very conservative, evangelical Christian, former governor to be his running mate. This was seen as a move necessary to mollify and shore up the base of the party.
John McCain, the real Republican candidate, is an older, experienced Senator. He has always been somewhat unpopular with the base of the party. He has been viewed as a moderate and was popular with independents and conservative (Reagan) Democrats. At one point his campaign was considered dead in the water. But he ultimatelay prevailed against a strong field to win the top spot on the ticket. He then picked a very conservative, evangelical governor to be his running mate. This was seen as a move necessary to mollify and shore up the base of the party.
On the West Wing, Arnold Vinnick had the lead in the polls in weeks leading up to election day. Matthew Santos was gaining in popularity, but the deficit was thought to be too great to overcome. Then, a national crisis occurred that changed everything. An accident at a nuclear power plant in California sparked wide spread panic. During the debates, Senator Vinnick declared nuclear power to be "completely safe." He also had pushed to get the licensing for this particular power plant approved quickly. The crisis hung around his neck all the way to election day and made the difference in the outcome.
In the real election, John McCain had a lead in the polls after the convention. His running mate selection had achieved its' goal of revving up the party faithful. Barack Obama was closing the gap, but many felt his inexperience, and his race, would keep him from winning the election. Then, a national crisis occurred that changed everything. On Monday, 9/15/08, Senator McCain declared the fundamentals of the economy to be sound. Two hours later, the markets were in freefall, banks were reported in trouble, and a massive bailout of Wall Street was being contemplated. With 8 days until the election, the crisis has not abated. Senator McCain's statements continue to hang around his neck. Barack Obama is now leading, and widening his lead, in the polls. Many consider the outcome of the election to be a fait accompli.
On television, writers can create any outcome they choose for the stories they write. With The West Wing, the writers created a believable scenario that changed the outcome of a presidential election. Real life is never so neat and tidy. While the current economic crisis was predicted by many, no one could have predicted when it would happen or how severe it would be. The writers got to pick the winner on The West Wing. The voters will get to pick the winner in the real world.
Will John McCain's blunder have the same consequences as Arnold Vinnick's? Will Barack Obama overcome the odds and win the election as did Matthew Santos? Our future literally hangs on the answers to these questions.
One more imitation, please.