In The West Wing’s Debate Episode, Politics Is a Game

The show is a reminder that face-offs between candidates are a lot like big sporting events, with clear winners and losers.

President Bartlet's game face

The worst things you could say about The West Wing are also, as it happens, the best things you could say about The West Wing. The show’s politics were liberal, in the years right before that word took on the whiff of a slur; its morals revolved around the assumption that government is an effective agent of good in the world; it embraced the conviction that the American political system operates with a reassuring moral clarity. Partisanship, in the show’s framing, is not partisanship, but rather something of a geographical designation: Do you stand on the right, or the wrong, side of history? In that sense, the “West” in the show’s title is apt. This was a series that, despite its bureaucratic setting, reveled in the easy moral calculus of the old-school Western. The good, the bad, and the partisan.

Nowhere is that more clear than in “Game On,” the fourth-season episode—one of the last to be written by Aaron Sorkin—that finds President Bartlet, running for re-election, facing off against Florida’s Governor Ritchie. The two men aren’t simply opposing presidential candidates; they are also, according to the Sorkinian moral logic, opposing stereotypes (and, in that, opposing visions of the American experiment): On the one side is Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), the smug, East Coast, liberal elite; on the other is Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), the aw-shucks advocate of states’ rights and small government. Here are the two men and the two ideas, pitted against each other, climactically, in the closest thing American politics has to a big-time sporting event: the debate that takes place right before the election.

Here’s a sample of their bout, as the candidates are invited to give their opening statements:

Ritchie: Well, first, let me say good evening and thank you. It’s a privilege to be here. My view of this is simple: We don’t need a Federal Department of Education telling us our children have to learn Esperanto, they have to learn Eskimo poetry. Let the states decide. Let the communities decide on health care, on education, on lower taxes, not higher taxes. Now, he's going to throw a big word at you: “unfunded mandate.” If Washington lets the states do it, it's an unfunded mandate. But what he doesn't like is the federal government losing power. But I call it the ingenuity of the American people.

Moderator: President Bartlet, you have 60 seconds for a question and an answer.

Bartlet: Well, first of all, let’s clear up a couple of things. “Unfunded mandate” is two words, not one big word.

There are times when we’re 50 states, and there are times when we're one country and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida didn't fight Germany in World War II or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year—from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry. 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion, and I’m supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?

Josh Lyman, Bartlet’s deputy chief of staff (watching from backstage): Game on.

C.J. Cregg, Bartlet’s press secretary (also from backstage): Oh my God.

Sam Seaborn, Bartlet’s deputy communications director (backstage): Strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out! [He turns to reporters.] Anybody want spin?

This is good TV—an exchange that plays up the “politics as sports” idea to dramatic, if also vaguely ridiculous, effect. (Sam’s “strike ‘em out” line was joined, sports-metaphor-wise, by Josh’s earlier exhortation to Bartlet to throw “nothing but strikes,” and by the broader fact that “game on” runs as a refrain throughout the episode.)

What the debate also does, though, is to take The West Wing to Peak Partisan Porn. The episode is so convinced of its own moral clarity as to be blithely—and, really, absurdly—smug. The Bartlet/Ritchie matchup, after all, isn’t simply about progressive ideas pitted against conservative ones; it is also, as the show presents it, about intelligence pitted against ... the lack of it. Ritchie, here, is not merely folksy; he is actively, ridiculously stupid. (That reference to “Eskimo poetry”! And to Esperanto! And to “unfunded mandate” as “one big word”!) Those flubs aren’t a case of debate nerves getting the best of him: In an earlier episode, after Bartlet informed Ritchie that a member of his Secret Service detail had been gunned down during an armed robbery, the governor’s tepid response was “Crime—boy, I don’t know.” To which an indignant Bartlet responded: “In the future, if you’re wondering: ‘Crime—boy, I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”

So “Game On” captures on the one hand the intellectual bloodlust that many such debates will involve: the partisan rancor, the high stakes, the anything-could-happen serendipities (and tragedies) of live TV. It also functions, though, as an hourlong ad hominem attack against an entire political philosophy. It assumes that conservatism can be fairly stereotyped as bumbling and word-tripping and uneducated. All of this by way of proving its broader argument: that one side is Right, and the other is Wrong. (The West Wing’s fourth season aired during the fall of 2002, halfway through George W. Bush’s first term; it does not require much imagination to see Ritchie as a grotesque version of the former Texas governor.)

That is, all in all, a flaw. It’s a stance that is unnecessarily alienating; it’s one that makes the line C.J. utters, as part of her post-debate victory lap—“the president just reminded us that complexity isn’t a vice”—ring ironically hollow. “Smug,” whichever side you’re on, is very rarely a good look.

And yet. “Game On,” for all its easy stereotypes and all its smug equivalencies, also goes a long way toward explaining why The West Wing—now 10 years off the air—has remained such an enduring feature of American political life. In the decade since Bartlet left office, politics have on the one hand gotten even more partisan, and even more bitter. But they have also, at the same time, lost clarity. They have become even more epistemologically unmoored than they once were. The 2016 campaign, after all, features battles not just over opinion, but over facts themselves—with many of the stories about it taking for granted the notion that we have now entered the “post-fact” era of political discourse.

In that environment, The West Wing, with all its blithe assumptions, offers the refreshment of certitude itself. “Game On,” in particular, treats politics not just as empty spectacle, but as something that actually matters. It rejects cynicism in favor of conviction. Many of the shows that have come in The West Wing’s wake—Designated Survivor, Veep, Madam Secretary, etc.—de-emphasize their characters’ political parties and convictions. Whether for purposes of broad audience appeal or (as in the case of Veep) a kind of #lolnothingmatters strain of satire, they downplay the combative elements of the American political system.

Not so The West Wing. It wants, for better or for worse, a fight, and a contest, and a game. It treats politics as a sport, and it revels in the moral promise that athletic events make to viewers: Sports, after all—like an election itself—feature clear winners, and clear losers. Whatever happens during their games, one team (or one person) will come away as the victor. There is no ambiguity. There is no uncertainty. There is no “post-fact” thinking. There is only right and wrong, only win and lose.

“I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial,” the speechwriter Will Bailey tells Sam Seaborn, after the debate concluded in Bartlet’s favor.

“So did we,” Sam replied. “But then we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate.” He paused. “If your guy’s seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.”