For political junkies like myself, this year’s election seemed like it would be a dream come true. Both major political parties had wide-open contests for their presidential nomination, with eight major candidates for the Democrats, and 11 for the Republicans. Chaos. Drama. Politics.
I’ve long been a fan of “The West Wing,” the critically acclaimed TV series following the inside operations of the fictional presidential administration of Josiah Bartlet. Even where I disagreed with the characters’ politics, their drive to genuinely serve the greater good, to make the country a better place, was palpable and inspiring.
The final season of “The West Wing,” in 2005 and 2006, followed not only the last months of the Bartlet administration, but the race to succeed him as president. The fictional contest pitted young, idealistic liberal Congressman Matt Santos, patterned by the show’s writers after Barack Obama, against maverick Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick, patterned after John McCain.
At the time the episodes were written, it was far from certain that either Obama or McCain would launch presidential bids themselves.
When they did, though, life began to imitate art. The young minority Democrat faced off against a party insider disliked by many, and only secured the nomination after a nail-bitingly close primary season.
The straight-talking Republican — sometimes a little too blunt — struggled to gain traction as other candidates, including a former minister, questioned his conservative credentials.
Yet both Obama and McCain clinched their party’s nominations and a campaign worthy of “The West Wing” seemed to be taking shape, in which two American statesmen would debate issues and important ideas, rather than trade sound bites and sharp attacks.
What made “The West Wing” uniquely viewable was that the characters, despite their politics, so visibly strove to serve the greater good. For a few weeks, I was na’ve enough to think that Obama and McCain might emulate their television counterparts and deliver a campaign unparalleled in recent history, a campaign that lifted the nation up rather than tearing it apart.
How quickly I was disappointed.
Whereas Vinick and Santos threw out the negotiated debate rules and had an exchange that Lincoln and Douglas would have been proud of, Obama and McCain have agreed only to the traditional “joint press conference” presidential debates that fail to inform or even engage the public.
Whereas Vinick and Santos loathed negative campaigning and denounced the outside groups that ran attack ads without their approval, both Obama and McCain have urged those groups on, and are counting their support in November.
Sometimes life imitates art. Sometimes the art is better.
Obama and McCain, I believe, are both better people than their campaigns reflect. But they’ve still both failed to deliver the campaigns that so many long for.
There are just over two months left before November’s election. That’s enough time to take the high road once again. That’s enough time to talk about policies in terms more specific than vague platitudes and soundbites.
That’s enough time to pull the negative ads and to stop demonizing the opposing party.
It’s often said in politics that winning is what matters, and that the end — getting your party in power — justifies the negative campaigns that leave voters cynical.
But both Republicans and Democrats have been disappointed with their top elected leaders lately — Republicans with a president whose legacy they must run from and Democrats with a Congress whose accomplishments have been lackluster.
This is in part because we hold candidates to such low standards when campaigning.
If we fail to set high expectations and standards for campaigns, how can we expect that politicians will live up to the even higher standards when in office?
“The West Wing” set the bar high, perhaps exceedingly high for those of us who watched it during our political adolescence. To find out what the younger generation would like to see politicians deliver, Barack Obama and John McCain would do well to buy the DVDs and take a few lessons themselves.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.