7.3/10. One of the benefits of giving a little more spotlight to the Republicans is that you can have a meaningful back and forth. That’s what “Message of the Week” runs on. Santos makes a play, so Vinick hits the ball back into his court, so Santos sends it back and so on and so on. I liked that structure here, giving us ping-ponging views of how the two campaigns are responding to one another. It’s the type of thing you couldn’t do, or at least that would be far more difficult, if you hadn’t already established Vinick, Sheila, and Bruno on Team GOP to lob something over the net at Team Santos.And it’s fun to see the strategic moves and countermoves between the campaigns. There’s something very interesting about Josh and Bruno (not to mention Sheila and Lou and, you know, the candidates themselves) trying to outmaneuver one another constantly and brainstorm ideas to try to outdo one another. I mentioned The War Room, a great documentary on the ’92 Clinton campaign in another room, and the show is quickly becoming a dramatic (and embellished version) of that. Whereas once the show seemed to focus its attentions on the strategic plays in the White House, slowly but surely it’s focused more and more on the behind the scenes tactics employed on the trail, and that is doubly interesting by getting to look behind the curtain of the campaign team on both sides of the aisle.
And yet, for once on this show, it’s clear who the bad guy is, or at least who the bad guy is supposed to be. For the most part The West Wing has depicted Arnie Vinick as distinguished competition, as a Republican even the dye-in-the-wool progressives in the White House respect, and perhaps even admire. He’s almost impossibly palatable as an opposing candidate: principled, moderate, and above all a decent guy.
But he does two things here that Bartlet, and by extension Santos, would never do, and they’re subtle (or in some cases, not so subtle) signs as to why, however much we may be charmed by Alan Alda’s Bugs Bunny-esque charms, we shouldn’t be rooting for Vinick. The first is the one that the episode underlines – namely, Vinick goes after Santos on Latino issues as a way of using his ethnicity against him. There’s no sense that it’s malicious from Vinick, and you get the sense that he doesn’t really want to do it, that he’s convinced himself that sticking to issues that affect Latino voters, without calling out Santos’s heritage directly, gives him not just political cover, but genuine moral cover in his own eyes, when it comes to those sorts of tactics. But his staffer’s resignation makes it clear – we’re meant to doubt that this is anything but a fig leaf to do something wrong, to fight dirty. Time and time again, this show gives its characters choices between fighting dirty or taking their lumps and hoping that their ideas and their principles we see them through. It rewards people who pick the latter option, and punishes people who choose the former.Which is interesting because if nothing else, I’m always intrigued by the gamesmanship this show explores. The idea that Vinick is losing ground in the polls and is trying to come up with something to knock Santos off balance, basically to just do something surprising and unpredictable, with his team wracking their brains to come up with an option, is the sort of sausage-making fare that I enjoy on this show. But we’re presented with a situation where what works politically, as it so often does, raises questions ethically, and the show implicitly dings Vinick for making the wrong choice.At the same time, Vinick does something Bartlet would never do – he lies, he lies because it’s easy and he’s tired it’s politically expedient. (Though as Mrs. Bloom points out, Bartlet did kind of sweep that whole MS thing under the rug, huh?) It’s a testament to the worldview of The West Wing that this is supposed to be the shocking revelation here, that a politician lied. And what I find truly interesting about it is that the show seems to want us to be on Vinick’s side in terms of how he feels about the folks pressuring him to make a pro-life pledge, but disdains him for pretending to placate those doing the pressuring. I think the show is implicitly asking WWJBD – What Would Jed Bartlet Do? Jed Bartlet would wine and dine and charm, but ultimately wouldn’t promise something he didn’t intend to deliver on, even and perhaps especially to someone or something he thinks is wrong.But Vinick is just fed up with to make concessions, to having to play ball, with parts of his own party that he himself hates. For once we see the downside of principle, or at least the funhouse mirror version of it, where Vinick’s frustrations come from having to lean to the right, from having to depart from what he believes in for the sake of getting office. But rather than being willing to risk losing in order to be true to himself, he makes a promise he has no intention of keeping to preserve his chances to become President. And because we punish that sort of thing on this show, it nearly blows up in his face.
Thankfully, he has VP nominee and committed conservative Sullivan. He’s effective and frankly a little scary here, presenting a boogeyman that The West Wing has only really countenanced in the form of Speaker Halfley prior – someone who is a committed opponent to things that the Bartlet administration and Santos campaigns disagree with strongly, but who is also effective at wheeling and dealing and using the levers and pulleys of government as well. He’s made out to be another bad guy, not for a failure of ethics like Vinick, but for being a talented operator on the other side of the aisle.
So we get a great deal of back and forth here, and you can focus on the strategy element and have a good time watching Josh and Shiela and Bruno and Lou go ten rounds across the campaign trial. But in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, is the story of a man of equal principle, striving to do something great, but presented as faltering in his integrity in the process.