In part one of my tributes to the West Wing I explore the President himself. How likely is it that Josiah E. Bartlet could be elected President of the United States?
Taking into account his background, politics and character I will use historical precedents to try answer that question. The question itself was inspired by one of my university professors, who after thirty years of studying the American Presidency, concluded it to be very unlikely that Bartlet could make it to the Oval Office. Light spoilers throughout!
Josiah Edward Bartlet is a native of New Hampshire and is a descendant of Josiah Bartlett (with two t’s), who was a real-life signatory of the Declaration of Independence. He is a Roman Catholic and is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, and also has an MA and PhD from the London School of Economics. As if this education was not enough by itself, Bartlet won a Nobel Prize (pre-presidency) in Economics. His political background is that of three-term U.S. Congressman and a two-term Governor of New Hampshire.
On the face of it Bartlet’s background is a mixed bag in presidency terms. New Hampshire is the birthplace of just one US President, Franklin Pierce, who’s presidency (1853-1857) is widely regarded as a failure. But coming from New Hampshire is not all bad news; its a swing-state (Obama won 52% of its vote in 2012), so though it is only worth four electoral votes, its voters carry more weight overall in the election of a president. New Hampshire also hosts the first presidential primary, and so it is a springboard to any candidates presidential campaign and crucial to building money and momentum. From the West Wing we know Bartlet won the New Hampshire primary, that exposure will have helped him immeasurably in the race to the Democratic nomination.
Like his home state, Bartlet’s religion is highly unusual but not unique in presidential history; John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) was the first and only Roman Catholic president. Unsurprisingly then, as a Catholic institution, Notre Dame has never produced a U.S. president, though the JFK did attend the London School of Economics for a time. Taking levels of education most presidents have graduated college (10 have not), however Woodrow Wilson is the only president to have a PhD. Four U.S. Presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Carter and Obama) have won a Nobel Prize, but unlike Bartlet, they all achieved it after entering the Oval Office, and Bartlet is also unique in that he did not win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Finally, Bartlet’s political career up to that point is very common for a President. 22 Presidents have been U.S. Congressman (most recently George H.W. Bush) and 17 have been Governors (most recently George W. Bush) prior to being elected President.
Josiah Bartlet is considered widely by his staff and other contemporaries to be the most liberal president since Kennedy (we can debate how liberal JFK was another time, for now I’ll let it slide). Strictly speaking this is not a point a presidential candidate would promote in modern politics. For better or for worse, ‘liberal’ has become a dirty word in American politics, like leprosy or some other serious affliction. The last president I would consider liberal was Lyndon Johnson (who I promise will be the subject of at least one future blog-post) and the three Democratic Presidents since (Carter, Clinton and Obama) have distanced themselves from the tag of ‘liberal’, whist campaigning and in office. Since the election of Ronald Reagan, the Republican party have been hugely effective at blackening the L-word and if Bartlet ran today he would most likely avoid it to have a chance at winning undecided voters. We also know from Bartlet’s Nobel Prize that he is sympathetic to Keynesian macroeconomic theory and believes in government intervention in the economy. This coupled with ‘liberal’ metaphorically tattooed across Bartlet’s forehead would take more than a few clever speeches from Sam and Toby to escape whilst still remaining a serious candidate. I can see Republican attack-ads now!
Bartlet’s other political area that I’d like to mention is abortion. Bartlet is pro-choice, very important to any Democratic nominee and integral to his liberalism. However, there is something for conservative America as well; Josiah Bartlet is anti-abortion personally, he travelled around the U.S. preaching why he believed women should consider not having them. This puts him on the abortion fence (a place not often occupied by American politicians) which is interesting in the sense it appeals to all but will gain the support of few. His Catholicism has given a very moralistic outlook on life which may appeal to undecided voters who usually lean toward the Republican Party.
Overall Josiah Bartlet’s background is more of a hindrance than it is helpful. His education and religion are highly unusual. Although New Hampshire is relatively important in nominating and electing a U.S. President, it is only worth four electoral-votes and as Bartlet is a Democrat he would expect to win most of the North-east region in a presidential election. On the plus side, his Nobel Prize and political experience of Washington and the state house would certainly aid his credentials in the eyes of voters.
His politics also make it very unlikely he could be elected to the Presidency. We know from the 1980s with Mondale and Dukakis that those portrayed as liberals are lambs to the slaughter in presidential elections. This may be changing in modern America but it certainly hasn’t changed yet.
In many ways Bartlet’s character is similar to that of Barack Obama. He is obviously very intelligent and doesn’t try to play down his intelligence (which is a trait numerous presidents have held over the years). But unlike Obama, Bartlet mixes his intellect with folksy charm that the American voters find so appealing, he is one of them. He has the ability to connect with anyone from children to the elderly and talk to them on their level and can also rely upon his humour.
Perhaps Josiah Bartlet’s major characteristic is that he possesses that X-factor which sets the mere mortal apart from those who are usually elected president; he has charisma and leadership to burn. Being a natural orator in the same league as Kennedy and Obama partly accounts for this, and would certainly make him a fierce campaigner. The power of a speech in campaigning and office can sometimes be overlooked, but it does have its uses, especially in the former (see Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention). Though it is sometimes hard to imagine, not all presidents have the gift of the tongue. It is certainly preferable in a president but both George Bush sr. and jr. proved that it isn’t everything.
In short, Bartlet has the perfect character and temperament to be president but that has more to do with him being fictional than anything else. He was written as a man that encompasses all the qualities Americans look for in their commander-in-chief but that is a contradiction in itself: smart but folksy, superman but everyman, cool calm and collected but yet passionate, a realist and also a romanticist, caring and moralistic yet also strong and tough in the face of America’s enemies. I can safely say that none of the 44 U.S. Presidents have ever had a more perfect blend of all these qualities than President Bartlet.
Can Bartlet be elected?
I would love to believe that there’s a Josiah Bartlet out there right now waiting to be elected in 2016, but sadly I feel even if this were true he would be very unlikely to make it all the way to the Oval Office. Bartlet has nothing which by itself prohibits him from the presidency but his politics would be hard for the country to swallow; the ‘liberal’ tag along with his well-documented views on the role of government would have the GOP fundraisers laughing all the way to the bank. If Bartlet ever reached the Oval Office I have no doubt he’d be equipped to deal with the job at hand and would in that situation be far more likely to get re-elected, but getting to the White House is the problem. Perhaps it is better then that Josiah Bartlet remains a fictional character; better to see him succeed in front of our eyes, showing us what the president and the presidency can be than be battered from East coast to West on the campaign trail and watching the map turn red on election night.
I love The West Wing. Since I first saw it a few years ago it would be fair to say I’ve had more than a mild addiction to story of the Bartlet Administration. As someone who is greatly interested in US political history (so much so that I specialized in it for my Master’s degree) the show is a perfect blend of fascinating characters, living out a brilliantly scripted story, in an iconic setting – The White House. Just for fun, I present to the internet a three-part blogging tribute to Aaron Sorkin’s great creation.
In these tributes I will take an element of the West Wing story and attempt to fit it into the real American political landscape. Its more than slightly ambitious and will be open to huge amounts of alternative interpretations, but I’ll give it my best!
Naturally, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the West Wing but want to then watch it first. Also, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!… I’m joking but seriously, do yourself a favour and see it!