I came upon this a few days ago on Bryce Zabel's blog and have been thinking of doing something with it ever since. And I decided to do something with it after a very frustrating Saturday. So first, let's run the clip from Slate Magazine and then I'll give you my thoughts.
The title of the piece, Haven't I Seen This One Before? How The West Wing predicted the 2008 presidential campaign would seem more all encompassing than you might find with just the similarities between Senator Barack Obama and Congressman/President Matt Santos. I confess that the comparisons between Santos and Obama never really stood out for me until this clip. It makes sense I guess if only as a germ of an idea that the creative people could take to logical conclusions. My own assumption was that Matt Santos was at least partially based on Henry Cisneros. I mean think of the comparisons: Cisneros was the charismatic mayor of San Antonio; Santos was the charismatic (fictional) mayor of Houston. And one of the story lines in the latter part of the presidential campaign – where Vinnick finds out about payments made to a woman in the mayor's office in Houston – has a definite similarity (though not the same outcome) as the "Linda Jones affair" which eventually led to Cisneros's resignation as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Of course the comparisons aren't perfect for either Obama or Cisneros served in the military, which Santos did. The problem is that the reporter takes things a bit far.
I suppose it is the nature of such things that the Slate reporter, Torrie Bosch, takes this beyond the obvious links that were explained by the writers of the show. I mean it is one thing to say that the producers wanted a "different sort of Democrat" to oppose a "different sort of Republican" in the show's last season and a half, and it may even be that Arnie Vinnick was subconsciously modelled on John McCain in that Vinnick is a maverick in his own party not unlike McCain (of course while McCain is a decorated naval officer who underwent horrors as a prisoner of war, it's clearly spelled out that Vinnick never served in the military). The writiers claim that they were looking for the "most attractive Republican candidate that they could create, presumably in contrast to Jame`s Brolin's character Robert Richie who had to be as unsympathetic as possible because he was going up against President Bartlett and thus we couldn't be allowed to think that he'd be someone viewers might want as president.
It is another thing to draw the number of comparisons that this reporter is. The comparison between Hillary Clinton and Bob Russell is particularly short sighted. The reporter describes Hillary Clinton as a "battle-tested insider with a huge base" just like Russell. The problem is that, as Josh Lyman points out when he explains his strategy to Helen Santos, Russell's support isn't as hard core as that. The real opponent – the real battle tested insider – is former Vice President Hoynes. Russell has been positioned through most of the fifth and sixth seasons as a light-weight who on a good day isn't half as good as Matt Santos and as Josh tells Leo "Russell doesn't have that many good days." And his handlers, Will Bailey and to a lesser extent Donna Moss – are aware of his deficiencies. When he was trying to recruit Josh to the Russell campaign he says that if Josh comes to work on the Vice President's campaign, "You get in now, you can make him the candidate you want him to be. After that we make him the President we need him to be." Say whatever you want about Hillary Clinton, she's no Bingo Bob Russell – even on one of his good days – she's better.
Another problem is the reporter's suggestion that the current situation could lead to what the show suggested – a brokered convention – is completely absurd simply because the elements that the writers put in place on The West Wing – a third, active candidate with a significant block of votes (John Hoynes) combined with a "great white hope" who is available to be drafted for the second round of voting (Governor Baker of Pennsylvania) don't exist in the current situation. (Too bad – it would have made the convention worth watching and might even hold the interest of viewers more than any convention since 1968.) I'm surprised that it wasn't mentioned that Vinnick's final opponent, the man who held out longest in the primaries, was a southern evangelical minister (Reverend Don Butler), albeit one who was not also a state Governor like Mike Huckabee. What's next; does Obama select an aging party strategist with a bad heart as his Vice President? Oh wait, someone's already done that.
And perhaps Torrie Bosch is being slightly flippant when she reminds people watching the clip that in the series that the "Obama character, Matt Santos" wins the election. After all, all it took for Santos to win was a nuclear accident in California at a power plant that Vinnick had pushed, the Democrats winning South Carolina (!), and the Hispanic vote in Nevada moving en masse to Santos. Maybe we shouldn't mention that at least one of the West Wing writers, Laurence O'Donnell, claims that had John Spencer not died it would have been Vinnick rather than Santos who won the presidency (though that is disputed by other writers on the series). Instead, let's just admit that the writers of The West Wing were writing fiction rather than prophecy.