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The West Wing Throws Its Base Some Red Meat

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You could have predicted that Democratic Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) would win last night’s live West Wing debate over Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). Not because of the candidates’ oratorical record or their stances in the campaign: Santos had to do better because it would make a better TV. Vinick led the campaign by 9 points going into the race. I have no inside knowledge of the series’ plans, but the producers would not be worth their paychecks if this race were not going down to a cliffhanger, and probably some kind of Florida/Ohio-style overtime situation, maybe with a timely twist involving electronic ballot boxes. In other words, if Santos was more confident and appealing than Vinick, it was probably less a matter of political bias than ratings bias.

There may have been some political bias at work, still. Over and over, Santos pulled out neatly-crafted defenses of liberal politics, including a lengthy spiel that noted that liberals freed the slaves, gave women the right to vote and created Medicare. Vinick, with the exception of a clever defense of drilling in the ANWAR reserve in Alaska (better there, he said, than a site that regular people are likely to visit), was saddled with mostly familiar Republican defenses of low taxes and small government. (It was amazing, actually, how much the refreshing, unformatted debate that Vinick and Santos agreed to sounded like your usual unrefreshing, formatted  debate.)

There are a couple possible explanations. It may be that, in the past couple of presidential campaigns, the Republicans have done a better job of packaging their message telegenically, so that it was just more impressive to hear an aggressive defense of liberalism from a candidate who was not virtually covered in bark. (Although it seems less so when you remember that, in the world of the show, the president for two terms has been a charismatic liberal who looks like an older Charlier Sheen.)

The other explanation is that the writer of the debate episode, Lawrence O’Donnell, is a former Democratic operative. Since it started in 1999, the bread and butter of The West Wing has been to provide esprits d’escalier for frustrated liberals, and while O’Donnell hardly turned Vinick into a troglodyte, you could hardly blame him for wanting to give his own side the choicest nuggets. Weirdly, though, almost none of the nuggets had to do with terrorism and foreign policy, except for a last-minute pledge by Santos not to "fight a war for oil." Though The West Wing has been focusing on international problems heavily since 9/11, for last night, the candidates were debating like it was 1999.

The best indication that the show plans to give a boost to Santos came in the closing remarks. Santos talked about himself: how proud he was of his struggle to become a pioneering Latino midshipman at Annapolis and Marine fighter pilot. Vinick talked more policy. And in television, biography always trumps ideology. (It’s ironic, too, since in most episodes, Smits has still managed to make Santos seem like a sour, posturing jerk.) There’s a long campaign ahead, of course, and anyone could win. But it’s worth keeping in mind that The West Wing is fighting for its life in the ratings, and, a recent Zogby poll said, most viewers want Santos to win.

The show, of course, has often argued against pandering and making the crowd-pleasing decision. But that’s when it comes to politics. Television, we know, is a much tougher business.

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