Friday, December 4, 2015

Strong and Wrong

"Better to be strong and wrong than right and weak," 
--attributed to Bill Clinton

Donald Trump has apparently taken this advice to heart.

Last night I saw the culminating episode in the seventh season of the "West Wing" toward which all the previous seasons and episodes have been moving: "The Debate."

In this episode the Republican candidate, a decent, liberal Republican, Arnold Vinnick (Alan Alda) turns to his Democratic rival, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smitts) after hearing the moderator lay out the rules--one minute answer, thirty second reply, yellow light goes on and you wrap up--and he says, "Let's skip these rules. Let's have a real debate."

This is, of course, what Aaron Sorkin and I and so many others would like to see--a Lincoln/Douglass debate where the candidates challenge each other and allow each other to reply at length. 

What ensues is a riveting, detailed examination of the souls of each ideology, Democrat and Republican.  Even as a lifelong left wing Democrat, I found myself agreeing with the Republican on education.  I do not believe the federal government ought to be pushing people toward college. I agree we need welders and mechanics and skilled laborers as much or more than we need philosophy and English majors.  But I agreed with the Democrat we cannot give up on public schools--it's just that we cannot expect public schools to heal all the ills of deprived youth. 
When Vinnick says "Headstart doesn't work" the audience gasps, but he points out test scores by the 6th grade are no better among kids who went to Headstart programs to which Santos replies, but those test scores were far better in 3rd grade; it's just that we gave up on those kids and allowed them to flounder after that. Headstart does what it is designed to do--it gets kids set up to learn in grades 1-3. 

When Santos attacks American pharmaceutical companies for pricing AIDS drugs out of the reach of Africans who need them, Vinnick replies that's not what's killing Africans; the lack of clean water is killing them. And why do they not have clean water?  High taxes. And  the audience laughs. But Vinnick says, (who knows how true this is) African countries tax their citizens who make $3,000 a year almost 30% in an effort to pay back national debt and at that level no economy can survive. So Vinnick, the Republican is making the argument Paul Krugman has been making about austerity in Europe and in Greece--you can't expect a nation to emerge from debt if you crush the economy with taxes. 

So the Republican scores some punches, but Santos gets in his licks. When Vinnick derides him as a liberal Santos points out it was liberals who ended slavery, got the Voting Rights Act passed to allow Blacks to vote, created Social Security and Medicare, ended the war in Vietnam, got women the vote. Throw that label at my feet and I'll pick it up and wear it as a badge of honor Santos says with a look of I'll spit in your eye. 

Santos scores well when he says the history of every Republican administration since Reagan is to cut taxes for the rich, promising to cut federal spending, but never cutting spending so deficits explode. And Vinnick is unwilling to specify where exactly he is willing to make cuts, because every cut loses votes among some group. This was the nub of the problem for Republicans in 2005 when the show aired and that has not changed. 

And on health care--and this show aired way before Ombamacare--Santos, the Democrat has to admit he doesn't much like his own program which will insure 15 million currently uninsured Americans, but it's all he can expect to get past Congress. He'd really like to make Medicare an option for everyone. "Just strike out that 65 and over" clause.  To which Vinnick erupts, "You'd force a government program on everyone?" To which Santos says, "Not force. Give them the option. And you know it is the best health insurance out there and a whole lot of people would chose it." Vinnick scoffs--embracing the Republican denial of Medicare. But Santos points out how much more efficient Medicare is than any private insurer--only a 2% administrative cost as opposed the 20% commercial insurance companies run.

What Santos does not say is Medicare is also the only health insurance where the company actually has the incentive to keep it's customers healthy as opposed to the mission to increase profit. What this means is Medicare pays for a good pair of shoes for diabetics every two years because avoiding foot abscesses is way cheaper than a single hospitalization.

What was so wonderful about the debate is it got past all the stupidity and got to the intelligent basis for disagreement. And when one candidate said something as if it was undeniable, the other was able to marshal facts and figures to blow it out of the water.  

Donald Trump would have vanished beneath the waves in a debate like this in less than a minute. Santos would have killed him not simply by challenging his baseless, blase assertions which are detached from reality but he would have vanquished Trump and any Republican on the grand ideology: You attack universal health care, and public schools, and any public program at all, but it's easy to just say no, no, no. Eventually, you have to say "yes."

Vinnick has appeared with border patrol officers on the Texas border saying he'd triple the number of patrolmen--how sad this was an issue then and we've not moved beyond it. Of course, Santos points out the number of patrolmen have already been tripled and made no difference. It's only 2005 and nobody's talking about building a wall. You know if Vinnick had proposed that Santos would point to the Maignot Line the French built to keep out the Germans after WWI.  Of course, the German's simply drove around it and flew over it--just as the Mexicans will do.

Just before the debate Santos meets with a pro choice women's group leader who is threatening to endorse the Republican because Santos is actually more conservative and believes in more restrictions than his Republican rival.  "Would you approve of abortion to chose the sex of a child?" Santos asks her. "Of course not." Santos smiles, "Well, then you are for limiting the reasons for abortion, just like me. The whole difference is where you draw the lines." The woman is left tongue tied, and it's a wonderful scene, one you would never see in real life. This is a world  where people dissect the lines along which choices about abortion may split party and religious lines, where possibilities for some accommodation on abortion might occur. But not in today's real world, where the Republicans have simply cut off all debate and are only interested in using abortion for votes.

"West Wing" creates  a world we'd like to see, where the Republican is actually mostly pro choice and really wants to engage in the actual issues which separate the two parties rather than these pseudo "values" arguments.  When Vinnick  assails Santos for wanting to control guns, Santos shrugs it off: "There are over 200 million guns in this country--I own 3 of them--there's no way to control guns. I'd control the bullets."

There is no good answer to gun deaths and violence in America, but there are possibilities for fresh approaches and watching this imaginary debate you see the power of good fiction--the power to imagine a better world, toward which we might move, if only the venality and weakness of real people did not stand in the way.

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