WASHINGTON - A Democratic president clashes with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill as a polarized nation debates taxes and guns, illegal immigration and gay rights, and, perpetually, the size of government. Question: Fictional Hollywood or real Washington? Answer: Both.
For seven years, from 1999 to 2006, the NBC drama "The West Wing" showed America the inner workings of President Josiah Bartlet's made-up White House. Re-watching its episodes today, it's difficult to ignore the parallels between the fiction of then and the reality of today. Since the show ended, the line between the authentic and the packaged in Washington seems to have grown increasingly fuzzy, not just in our politics but now, also, in governing itself.
The depiction of American politics has saturated our popular culture over the past two decades, from "Spin City" and "Dave" in the 1990s to "Veep" and "Lincoln" today. The images, dialogue, casting and storylines almost always play to stereotypes, implanting notions of the American system in the minds of viewers and shaping expectations of how politics and government should look.
Our scripts, the storylines we expect, can confine us. But behind that notion is a deeper, more troubling question: Has the kind of politicking served up on the screen for so long become so ingrained that it is blowing back into the reality of governing?
More important, are expectations set by Hollywood and reinforced by Washington out of step with what it will take to govern a changing country in challenging times? Are American leaders expending too much effort trying to be and do what's expected for their audience - primarily core supporters and special interests - rather than being and doing what is needed to fix the nation's problems? And are we, the public, equally responsible by punishing our leaders if they veer from the script?
Political theater is hardly new. Leaders have always played hard for the public's attention and support. And our 24/7 flow of instantaneous information, with the insatiable appetite for reality programming tacked on, is making things more intense.
Almost daily, individual congressmen and senators march to the House and Senate floors to passionately support or oppose a certain piece of legislation, raising voices and pounding podiums as they preach - to mostly empty chambers, and C-SPAN viewers taken by the ruse TV has created. Also, Republicans and Democratic leaders hold frequent news conferences - again, much of it for show.
Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-politician-turned-president, used his Hollywood-honed communication skills to get the public on his, if not the Republican Party's, side. Barack Obama, a skillful orator operating in a new-media world, frequently leverages the latest technology to curry favor with Americans in hopes of pressuring GOP leaders who control the House to see it his way on any number of issues. Rare is the politician who cannot, with the help of speechwriters, summon the narrative drama needed to get something done or play to an audience.
Is it any wonder, then, why many Americans tell pollsters they have so little faith in their leaders and institutions? Or why they're so turned off by Washington? Or why they seem to get caught up in the Hollywood-like romance of what it should be like rather than in the reality of what it needs to be?
Exhibit A: the gun debate.
Shortly after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings, Obama put on his nation's comforter hat and quickly made a public show of tapping Vice President Joe Biden to come up with a White House proposal for addressing a recent spate of fatal mass shootings. The vice president predictably convened representatives from every group with a stake in the issue.
And Democrats and Republicans - and their respective special interest allies - dug in. The left pushed limits on guns, the right resisted, and Washington insiders started murmuring about the unlikelihood that a comprehensive measure would ever reach Obama's desk.
Precisely as expected.
Fiscal crises also have been going according to script. Every few months, the country faces a looming fiscal deadline - tax cuts are set to expire, or the nation's debt limit needs to be raised, or automatic spending cuts are to take effect.
Act 1 has both Democrats and Republicans calling for compromise and talking of grand bargains. Act 2 finds them digging in on their opposite ideological positions of taxes, spending and government's size, beholden to their bases. Act 3 ends up being both sides leaving the negotiating table and posturing publicly for maximum exposure. Act 4, the finale, is a furious behind-the-scenes wrangling by a select few that results in a narrow-scope late-night deal reached just before the deadline passes.
On gay rights, two moments - one fake, one real - are striking in their similarities.
In "The West Wing" episode "20 Hours in L.A.," which aired first in 2000, Bartlet is running for re-election when he dresses down a Hollywood producer demanding he publicly advocate for more gay rights. Bartlet thunders, "Right now, right this second, the worst thing that could possibly happen to gay rights in this country is for me to put that thing on the debating table, which happens the minute I open my mouth!"
Fast forward to the real 2012. Obama was seeking a second term when he announced he supported gay marriage, bowing to pressure from gays - including many in Hollywood - and disclosing his stance far earlier than planned after Biden pre-empted him. Obama said then: "I didn't want to nationalize the issue. There's a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized."
In "Shutdown" - a 2003 episode of the show created by unabashed liberal Aaron Sorkin - Bartlet refuses to compromise with the Republican House speaker over budget cuts the GOP is demanding as a fiscal crisis looms, and declares, "I am the president of the United States, and I will leave the government shut down until we come to an equitable agreement."
Will we hear similar from Obama next month if - as expected - House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, demands significant spending cuts as a part of legislation to fund federal agencies beyond March 27 and avert a government shutdown? Maybe so.
These days, a level of governing uninfluenced by stereotypes sounds as refreshing as it does impossible.
That is, unless our leaders start putting what's right for the country over what's expected by their most vocal backers, and unless we, the general public, stop holding them hostage with fantastical notions of how they should behave.
We're talking about a fundamental shift. And that won't happen overnight.
But the potential payoff is huge. If the pressure to adhere to the script ebbs, that clears the way for more real problem-solving. Not to mention the ability to look at shows like "The West Wing" and say, with confidence: This is entertaining, but it's nothing like the real thing.