On The West Wing and the Republican Party of Today

Lately I have been watching a lot of The West Wing, the Emmy winning Aaron Sorkin political drama that ran from 1999 to 2006. At the time, it was criticized for representing a liberal fantasy thatrelying too often on simply “doing the right thing” and making a good speech as the answer to political problems. If you search for “West Wing” on YouTube you’ll find plenty of examples to back up this criticism. But what I’ve been more struck about this time through is the difference between the Republicans depicted on the show and Obama’s opposition now.

Those on the show are no pushovers. By season three they’re in the midst of congressional investigations into the president, first lady, and chief of staff. Now, toward the end of the season, they’ve just issued a formal censure of the president, only the second in U.S. history. The Republicans insisted on, and won, a concession from the White House that Democrats be allowed to join in the censure without fear of reprisals or other pressure from the administration. In all of this, Republicans have been hard-nosed, clever, and ideologically-driven in seeking their policy preferences.

The difference is that conservative Republicans in the House and Senate now are generally guided by only one policy preference: simply to negate whatever Obama and the Democrats propose. Theirs is the counter-party and the politics of pure opposition. They don’t want to strengthen their hand for negotiations because they never want to negotiate. That makes a huge difference in how politics works. So, for instance, the Republican policy on healthcare is simple: repeal Obamacare. The U.S. Senate has rapidly deteriorated into requiring a 60-vote majority for everything. The filibuster has existed for a long time, but until Obama’s presidency it was never the automatic reaction of the minority to every single item of business. That’s the government by obstruction that the Republican Party has embraced.

As I’ve written before, part of the cause is ideological. As a body, conservative Republicans have decided that smaller government is the solution to every problem – from the environment to the federal debt to health care to gun violence to the economy. With that idea it is not difficult to see why obstruction would shift from a means to and end.

But I think an excess emphasis on partisan obstruction has also blinded them to the benefits of compromise. There are deals to be made that would make government both more efficient and more effective. But they’ll never find or pass them if they insist on obstruction always and forever. Nor should they be shocked if they increasingly find themselves shut out of the policy-making process, as they were on Obamacare and will be permanently if the Senate majority reaches a point of deciding that it is worthwhile to finally just do away with the filibuster altogether.

I think our nation and government would be poorer if Congress heads more in the way of majoritarian absolutism. But that’s the likely outcome in the face of such obstructionist political behavior. It would be better for us all if the Republican Party learned again to dig in with all they’ve got. Maybe they should be watching some more of The West Wing.

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