Note from Alyssa: With a glut of shows set in Washington—and more specifically, in the halls of power—set to hit television screens this year, comparisons to The West Wing are inevitable. But while that show set a high-water mark for political programming, does that mean that its characters were actually good at politics or at running the country? My colleague Ian takes a look at the man who occupied the Oval Office.
For seven seasons, the West Wing was therapy for thousands of Bush-weary progressives who fantasized about being governed by a Nobel Prize winning scholar who didn’t believe that high-income tax cuts were a panacea. Now that America actually is governed by a Nobel Prize winning scholar with a real domestic policy agenda, however, it’s time to be honest about President Bartlet’s legacy. While the ability to rhetorically shame conservatives made him an appealing fantasy, the substance of Bartlet’s policies ranged from uninspired on issues like health care to downright destructive on Social Security and education. Bartlet had a lackluster economic record. He gave away a seat on the Supreme Court to the far right, and he consistently favored symbolic cultural victories over real opportunities to make life better for American families.
If you set aside the budget-busting Bush tax cuts, George W. Bush was actually a better president on domestic policy than President Bartlet. So Bartlet expanded Medicare to cover mammograms and cancer clinical trials? President Bush actually signed a prescription drug plan for seniors. And while George W. Bush at least had the decency to allow his plan to turn Social Security over to Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers die a politically embarrassing death, Bartlet worked with Republicans to pass a massive Social Security reform at a time when Republicans’ were single-mindedly focused on privatization. If the Bartlet Social Security plan had actually been in effect when the market bottomed out in 2008, millions of American seniors would have been left with no safety net to fall back on.
Besides trashing Social Security, the Bartlet Administration had few bold ideas. What was the Bartlet plan to ensure universal access to health care? Or the Bartlet plan to combat global warming? What did President Bartlet do to close the education gap between poor and rich children? Or to ensure that every child who does succeed in high school will be able to pay for college? If anything, his education policy was as much a betrayal as his Social Security debacle. Although the first term Bartlet White House had ambitious plans for education reform, the second term Bartlet wound up supporting school vouchers.
After nearly an entire term in the White House, Bartlet’s economic record was so dismal that it is a miracle he was reelected. Consider his attempt to literally defend this record before God (who he also calls a “feckless thug”): “3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico. Increased foreign trade. 30 million new acres of land for conservation. Put Mendoza on the bench. We’re not fighting a war.”
3.8 million jobs sure sounds like a lot, but at the time Bartlet made this speech, it added up to just over 90,000 jobs during each month of his presidency — far less than the country needs just to keep up with population growth. This kind of stagnant growth could be excused if President Bartlet, like President Obama, presided over our emergence from an historic recession, but the Bartlet Administration experienced no similar economic calamity.
Bartlet does deserve credit for appointing Justice Mendoza, but the Mendoza appointment is overshadowed by his egregious decision to appoint Justice Christopher Mulready. Mulready’s appointment came about as part of a compromise to ensure that Senate Republicans would also confirm a chief justice whose very personal experience with Roe v. Wade would otherwise make her unconfirmable. While there is certainly symbolic value to having a chief justice who once had an abortion, such symbolism will come as cold comfort to the millions of American families impacted every time Mulready joins his fellow conservative jurists engaged in a systematic campaign to rewrite the law to leave workers and consumers powerless against the wealthy and the well-connected.
President Bartlet had his moments — they just rarely had much to do with economic justice. Bartlet was a strong supporter of both gay rights and reproductive freedom, for example, and he deserves credit for negotiating a peace between Israel and Palestine. Ultimately, however, his presidency advances a very small kind of liberalism that appeals mostly to people who’ve never worried if they could pay their medical bills or if their children can afford college.
President Bartlet’s inattentiveness to the 99 percent cannot be dismissed because economic justice doesn’t make good television. Screenwriters could not design a better villain than James Clark McReynolds, the Supreme Court Justice who systematically undermined FDR’s New Deal and routinely referred to President Roosevelt as a “crippled son-of-a-bitch.” Lyndon Johnson’s transformation from southern segregationist to civil rights crusader reached a climax that literally brought Martin Luther King to tears. President Obama’s drawn out battle over the Affordable Care Act is riddled with the kinds of crushing defeats, unexpected setbacks and narrow triumphs that fiction writers dream of recreating.
Ultimately, the Bartlet Administration was a failed opportunity because President Bartlet never once sought out these kinds of battles. Protecting choice or welcoming gays into the military (something the Bartlet Administration supported but never accomplished) are important prongs of the progressive agenda, but a liberalism that’s uninterested in income inequality or ensuring that no American ever dies because they cannot afford to treat a curable disease is both a recipe for electoral defeat and a tragedy of moral neglect.