June 28, 2006

Going Softly Into the Night

Ezra Klein has a good piece up on West Wing. His thesis is that the show presented a too-nice version of the world, which left liberals too soft for modern politics:

This was the world of The West Wing, a realm of comedy, decency, respectable opponents, and honorable intellectual warfare. A world where the moderate Republicans triumphed and the ideologues got rolled. It laid bare a peculiar, and possibly temporary, quirk of liberals: their aching desire to believe the best of their opponents.

A tour of conservative cultural phenomena doesn't turn up anything quite so generous. Rush Limbaugh has mused that "what's good for al-Qaeda is good for the Democratic Party." Michael Savage predicted that a John Kerry presidency would declare the Bible a "hate book" and create a market in "baby body parts." Compare that with the liberal commuter's favored companion: National Public Radio's comforting, politics-as-Plato-conceived-of-it drone.

Klein has a real point here. West Wing was always liberal wish-fafillment (Clinton without the sex!) not only about ourselves, but our opponents. There is a huge gap in the campaign timeline, the part when the decent pro-choice moderate Republican goes is an embattled underdog in Iowa, then suddenly becomes the GOP nominee. They don't show the in-between part because a guy like Vinick could never win a GOP Presidential Primary campaign. Can't be done. Still I appreate West Wing for giving shape to our dreams, even if it isn't a guide to real world:

So as The West Wing exits stage left, so too does the mindset that created it. Daschle and Gephardt have given way to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and now it's the Democrats deploying parliamentary jujitsu to force hearings and sink legislation. NPR is still around, to be sure, but Air America has burst on to the scene, boasting a full lineup of enthusiastic airwave warriors. Stephen Colbert has stepped forward, finding popularity and success by parodying the bloviating buffoons of right-wing media. And the blogs have grown fruitful and multiplied, bringing with them an appetite for confrontation and a talent for pugilism thatÂ’s begun to reshape the political landscape.

One could bemoan this, lamenting the exit of civility and the acceptance of trench warfare. But why? The Clinton era, which provided the inspiration for The West Wing, should not have proved a notably tense period. After 12 years of Republican presidents, Democrats had elected a leader who promised to banish that which was most controversial and inflammatory from the party. It was precisely the sort of performance that The West Wing's Republicans would have cheered. And yet it was Clinton, after exiling Jesse Jackson and eschewing so-called "class warfare," who gave rise to the ferocious Newt Gingrich and the hardliners of the Republican Revolution. Whatever goodwill and good faith he initially displayed was met with corresponding increases in partisan rancor and contempt. What explanation is there save that they smelled blood?

It's counterintuitive, to be sure, but it may be that the only way to ratchet down tensions is for both sides to come armed. And that can't happen so long as liberals believe that, deep down, conservatives don't really want to fight. For now, however, rapprochement is a decidedly second-tier consideration. I'm certainly a typical liberal softie who thrilled to The West Wing's world of comity and compassion. But nowadays, I'm also a post-Bush liberal: As much as I want us to all just get along, I'm much more interested in seeing us win.

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