Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday July 21st, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore 

My wife Whitney and I have just concluded watching all seven seasons of the West Wing- maybe the best television series ever. In case you’ve forgotten, this saga of two terms of a fictional Democratic presidency is juxtaposed with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and often reflects key events from that era. It is compelling on many levels – the writing, the acting, the nuances of the characters and not least the fact that it’s highly entertaining.  

As someone who had some inside looks at seven presidencies, I found it especially remarkable for its verisimilitude. As is the daily life of the real White House, the story lines were highly complex; the issues were mostly real world, accurately defined, and they seem relevant even a decade later. Not all Democrats were good nor all Republicans bad and the trashing of political opponents was mild when compared to today. The relationships with the news media were often testy but mostly respectful on both sides of the podium. In an important bow to reality, not all problems were resolved. In fact, many were not.  

There was one notable exception to the otherwise highly realistic nature of the series. No White House staffer I ever met was as funny, especially with the sharp one- liners, as those working for President Jed Bartlet (played with perfect pitch by by Martin Sheen.) For the humor and the humanity it implies, we owe an enormous debt to the brilliant series creator and principal writer Aaron Sorkin. 

Now it may be, as some have said, that the West Wing is a Sorkin “liberal fantasy.” But the more I see of today’s Washington, the more I wonder if perhaps the reason West Wing is now seen as a fantasy - is because of how toxic and dysfunctional American politics have since become. It is not as though I am nostalgic for the days of the “Bartlet administration.” I would happily settle for the level of civility, the caring for the needy and the commitment to put interests of country over political ideology, which existed under President George H.W. Bush. 

Please don’t get me wrong. I have no illusions that there was any period of American history that one can point to as remotely close to perfection. Of the seven administrations whose foreign policies I covered, such a notion would never have sprung to mind.  In my three decades there were strong, often bitter differences over policy between Republicans and Democrats. But most of the senior staff and cabinet officials I dealt with were dedicated and patriotic public servants. That’s why the interests of the country- not the party- would almost always ultimately prevail. I fear that this may no longer hold true.  

Americans consider their country the exemplar of democracy, and rightly so. And they are at times, less than shy in criticizing the level of democratic values (or lack of same) in other countries. Yet I wonder how the U.S. State Department would rate this hypothetical country? 

Its president has been elected by a substantial majority.

The president’s party has a simple majority in its Senate but the minority now resorts to an old Senate rule meant only for rare disputes, so that on virtually all matters big and small, a sixty percent majority is required to get anything done.  

In the most recent election the president’s party won the majority of the votes for House members, but not the majority of House seats because of the way the districts had been gerrymandered. The House Speaker then decides that only issues that have the majority support of his party would be put to a vote. This effectively silences the president’s party and the Speaker’s own moderates, giving virtual veto power to the House radical-right wing. 

And so the people’s wishes expressed in the recent elections- the very essence of true democracy - are consistently being stymied by an implacable, ideological minority. So what kind of democracy is this?   

There are many reasons American democracy has survived for so long. But one of the most important ones since the Civil War, is that party leaders along with moderates and those prepared to make principled compromises in the best interests of the country, have not been willing to be led to the brink- and over it- by the most extreme members of the Congress. Until now. 

These are truly extraordinary times in which we seem to be working with an entirely new set of political rules and expectations. Perhaps we miss the discipline of the Cold War when preventing World War III trumped all other considerations. Perhaps the election of an African-American as president unleashed suppressed racial resentment among the many working class whites who are providing most of the votes for the radical right.  

Whatever the reasons, on issue after issue we are now seeing the consequences of extremist minority control over the House of Representatives. And the best example of this is the proposed new immigration bill passed by a significant bi-partisan majority in the Senate.  

The bill will give some 11 million illegal immigrants a long and difficult path to citizenship. It allocates many billions on a new and bigger wall on the Mexican border and adds 20,000 new border guards. But it will also give illegal immigrants some hope and dignity and will make a lot more of them taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office predicts the bill will eventually add several points to America’s economic growth rate.  Yet Speaker John Boehner refuses to allow an open House vote on the bill, which with Democrats and moderate Republicans would undoubtedly pass.   

What is playing out today is the Republican nightmare come to life. It could consign their party to the political oblivion it will deserve if the ever-growing Hispanic population blames Republicans for blocking what is win-win - not just for immigrants but for the whole country. That is no liberal fantasy.




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