November 11, 2005

The West Wing Debate

I wasn’t planning on writing another column on “The West Wing” television show, but last Sunday’s live debate between Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits as the Democratic candidate) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda as the Republican candidate) was absolutely amazing. Here there were two fictional TV characters, but their rhetoric and the issues were all right on the money. An interesting note, Alan Alda is a known progressive, so for him to play the Republican is quite an acting job.

Right off the bat, Senator Vinick proposed forgoing the rules and having an honest live debate that wasn’t constrained by timed answers. That served as the catalyst for true combative argumentation. Here are my thoughts on the debate and the issues.

Illegal Immigration

This became a wedge issue in the election because Santos is a Latino. In an earlier episode Vinick’s people decided to attack Santos on illegal immigration to expose and exploit that fact. While Vinick’s plan to handle illegal immigration was to double the border patrols, Santos keenly approached the issue from another angle. First he stated that we’ve already tripled the border patrols over the last 10 years, and it hasn’t solved the problem. What needs to be done is to stimulate the economy of Mexico and create jobs so that the Mexicans don’t need to sneak into the United States to have a better lifestyle… “If Mexico’s economy was as strong as Canada’s, you wouldn’t have people sneaking over the border.”

Tax Cuts & Spending Cuts

Let’s face it - tax cuts have been the Republican mantra all along. Vinick accused Santos of planning to raise taxes, but then we found out it was only for the super rich. Forrest Sawyer, the moderator, tried to pin Vinick down on what spending cuts he would make, but Vinick wouldn’t get caught in that trap.

A true Republican, Vinick’s answer for just about any problem in the world was “Tax cuts”. Even for the economies in other countries, that’s his answer. The truth is that Republicans have fought to cut taxes at every juncture, but have failed at curtailing spending, thus ballooning the deficit, and hence the national debt.


Here’s another clear distinction between the Democratic and Republican perspectives on education. While the Republicans would gladly gut public education, and voucher students into private schools, Democrats see the necessity of strengthening the public school system. Vinick accused Santos of simply throwing money at the problem, but Santos argued back that he would advocate for creative programs for bringing out the best in the public education system.

Health Care

Santos advocated for universal health care. He said that optimally, he would rather just delete the words “… over 65...” from the medicare statute and open it up for everyone. Ladies & gentlemen, this is an idea that is looooong overdue. Health care is deserving of its own article, but suffice to say that universal health care is needed in this country. The United States is the only industrialized country withOUT universal health care, and statistic after statistic has proven that the cost is much higher. Santos argued that the administrative costs of running Medicare are just 2%, compared to 23% in private HMO’s. I’m not sure if that statistic is accurate**, but if it is, that’s another huge argument for Universal Health Care. This is not one of those industries that bodes well for free enterprise and open markets. It’s out of control, the costs are too high, and 45 million people are without health insurance, and hence adequate medical care. It should just be another tax we pay in our payroll deductions and provided to all.

At this point the ‘righties’ are saying “That’s socialized medicine!”. Yeah. So. Get over it! It’s the right thing to do. Not for the profits of big HMO’s, but for the people of this country.

Prescription drugs are another sore spot on the Health insurance topic. Of course we all know that we could get prescription drugs from Canada at a much lower cost, but our government won’t allow it. They claim that they can’t control the quality and reliability. Senator Vinick claimed that our drugs cost more because our drug companies put so much into research to cure diseases. So, why do we sell them to Canada to cheaply in the first place?


Santos has a plan that would create 1 million new jobs in the first year of office. The Vinick plan? No new jobs. He would cut jobs by decreasing the size of government. In my opinion, that’s no strategy for growing the economy – decreasing jobs. That’s a recipe for recession.

Campaign Finance

Santos made an issue out of the fact that a large portion of Vinick’s financial backing came from large oil companies, and therefore his allegiance is toward that industry. Sounds familiar, huh? On the other side, a large portion of Santos’ financial backing came from labor unions; so much of his focus is on worker’s rights.

This is not only a clear & real distinction between Democratic & Republican perspectives, but also a central problem with the Bush Administration being made up of present & former oil executives. Clearly all of their strategy, focus, and efforts are directed to the benefit of big business - particularly the energy industry. Surely you must have wondered why Mr. Cheney formulated his “Energy Policy” under a cloud of secrecy? To this day he has refused to divulge whom he consulted with and how he developed that policy, although we know that specific oil industry executives were provided access to the Vice President. And speaking of Energy Policy…

Energy Policy: Nuclear, Exploration in ANWR, War for Oil

Santos stated emphatically that he would not go to war for oil, and asked Vinick to make the same pledge. Vinick refused to make that pledge because it would demean the value of the president’s oath. Clearly this was a jab at the Bush presidency, and not even a subtle one.

On the subject of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, of course Santos was against it while Vinick was for it. A typical Republican, Vinick did not see the ecological values and would rather put all of the oil wells up in ANWR where people don’t have to look at them. Santos other the other hand, understands the complexity of our dependence on foreign oil, and sees other creative ways of addressing that. However, he did not advocate building more nuclear power plants, since we really haven’t solved the issue of disposal of nuclear waste.

Vinick’s answer to the energy problem is to let the market solve it.

As a side note, I read a fascinating article from the Boston Globe on Monday morning (Nov 7) by James Carroll (here’s a link to a version of it on The Smirking Chimp in case the Globe article fades from currentness). This article, entitled “Deconstructing Cheney”, is a very short read, but gives an excellent background on our Vice President and his connections to the oil industry as he’s made a tremendous impact on our warring tendencies. This article is a must read.


In the end, this debate got at the core of the differences between Democratic and Republican values. Where Republicans believe in the free market and tax cuts, the Democrats understand the need to regulate industries that would otherwise get out of control.

Santos made a wonderful speech embracing the label of ‘Liberal’ after Vinick tried to demonize liberal ideology. I’ve heard much of this context before as liberals have been credited with the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women & African Americans, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water act, Social Security (which lifted millions of elderly out of poverty), and Affirmative Action. Conservatives opposed every one of the initiatives.

Republicans advocate for smaller government, but they don’t follow through with that promise. Every Republican president in my lifetime has ballooned the size of government. The Clinton administration on the other hand actually did decrease the size of government while operating the government on a surplus.

I have no argument with the notion that bureaucratic, governmental red tape hinders business. Perhaps some of that bureaucracy should be curtailed. But at what expense? Where do we draw the line between big business’ grab for profit, and protections for the citizens?

(editors note: 2% admin expense for medicare IS accurate. see here. I haven't been able to confirm the 23% but I've seen a high of 32.7% and low of 11.8, so 23 sounds right in the middle)


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