Politics Is Not a Soap Opera

by Andrew C. McCarthy
From health care to Iran, it’s grown far too serious for Clinton-era entertainment.

The problem with the soap opera that is modern American politics is that politics is not soap opera.

The object of the latter is entertainment through a daily, hokey maintenance of suspense. This necessarily requires the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, particularly when it comes to the lead characters. Depending on what improbable twists and turns the plot must take to meet the demands of day-in-day-out drama, the stars of the show slip seamlessly from villain’s to hero’s role, from incorrigible vice to transcendent virtue. Soap fans buy in because they know it is not real. It is, to the contrary, their escape from reality.

Politics is our reality. It only seems like soap opera because of the way it is covered: Right into your living room, day-in-day-out, celebrity journalists present the adventures of their fellow dramatis personae, celebrity pols. The journalists portray politics, moreover, as suspense, and not just such suspense as the news of the day may warrant by dint of its relative seriousness — an earthquake, the outbreak of a war, or the specter of millions losing health-insurance plans they were promised they could keep. The continuing suspense lies in the practice of politics.

A little more than 15 minutes ago, there were only three major networks and a handful of prominent national newspapers. The focus of this limited news-media universe was the events themselves.

Not anymore. With a plethora of news sources, with limitless space and hours of airtime to fill, events are now more like episodes of a long-running drama. Politics is the glue that holds the plot together. No longer is the story that millions of people are losing health insurance that President Obama guaranteed they would be able to keep. For the mainstream press, it is about how cleverly Obama can rationalize his lies, how adroitly can he revise what he’s previously said, how deftly can he turn the page . . . shifting the audience’s attention to the next episode — maybe immigration, maybe Iran, maybe the debt ceiling . . . 

Politics as soap opera took hold in the Clinton years, and maintains its grip in our more perilous here and now. Bill Clinton was a lucky guy who got to live off the fat of the land: the broad prosperity of Reagan’s economic boom, post-Soviet unipolar U.S. dominance on the world stage, and plunging crime rates at home. New threats, such as the global jihad’s setting its sights on America, were just emerging; new time bombs, such as government’s extorting banks to grant mortgages to poor credit risks, were just beginning to tick.

Clinton’s personal corruption reduced the stature of the presidency and Dick Morris’s miniature populism — the president as champion of, yes, school uniforms for third-graders — reduced its gravity. The president trundled along from scandal to scandal, all unsavory but none consequential enough to threaten American security or prosperity. As he did, the media marveled not at how dissolute Clinton was but at how fabulous he was at lying about it. In previous times, gross fraud was a disqualifier for offices of public trust. Now, fraud and the dexterity to carry it off in the light of day — to look the press itself in the eye and lie with indignation — became admirable political attributes. The story was never the sordid facts of the scandal du jour; the scandal was merely a barometer for measuring Clinton’s survival skills.

Now, of course, we have another celebrity-in-chief whose left-wing orientation aligns with the media’s. Obama is a more ambitious and doctrinaire statist — one who didn’t come to Washington just “to do school uniforms,” as he admonished his staff — but one who lacks Clinton’s charm. As increasing numbers of Americans sense, the current president is more into inflicting your pain than into feeling it.

Yet Obama’s biggest problem is not that, for all his talk about it, empathy seems so alien to his experience. It is that the world has gotten far more serious.

It is not just that Americans are beginning to lose their health-care plans in droves, with tens of millions staring at the prospect of prohibitively expensive coverage that will force them to tighten their already cinched belts, further depressing our stagnant economy. A jaw-dropping 91 million working-age Americans have dropped out of the labor force. That number is significantly bigger than the entire population of Germany (82 million) — the country with Europe’s largest, and the world’s fourth-largest, economy.

While our nation appears to atrophy before our eyes, Obama is enabling the nuclearization of Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism. As National Review’s editors detail, China senses Obama’s indifference and moves aggressively, hegemonically, in the Pacific. Putin is reeling in Ukraine and muscling his way into Egypt, having taken Obama’s measure and found no obstacles to his Soviet-reconstruction project. The president’s delirious base may convince themselves, assuming they follow these developments at all, that America must be at fault or that it’s nothing a few “Coexist” bumper stickers can’t address. But our enemies do not wish to coexist, and they are on the march.

In an increasingly perilous world, politics has to be our response, not our entertainment. Today’s events are not episodes. They are threats, foreign and domestic; and they are no longer on the horizon — they are clear and present dangers. Politics is how we perceive our national interests and take effective action, not how the president manages to weather storms of his own making.

The star of a soap opera can alter his character with every new script. In real life, no one is a fraud on Monday and Wednesday but a pillar of rectitude if you catch him the rest of the week. In real life, it is no surprise that the guy whose autobiography is chock-full of fiction turns out to be a full-time charlatan, that the guy who gets indignant at the “birthers” retained an agent who represented that “he was born in Kenya to an American anthropologist and a Kenyan finance minister.”

In real life, the guy who looks you in the eye and promises that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period” can be expected to tell you, cross his heart, the Benghazi massacre was caused by an anti-Muslim video, and that everything possible was done to save Americans under siege. He can also be expected to run an administration that assures you, even as things fall apart, that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, largely secular organization committed to democracy; that Obamacare is not a tax and will dramatically reduce your premiums while cutting spending; that we are experiencing the most transparent administration in history; that the criminally reckless Fast and Furious program was begun by the Bush administration; that the president has cut spending and debt even as he piles trillions more on our tab; that he has excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs; or that an “interim agreement” that explicitly allows Iran to enrich uranium — and that anticipates a final accord establishing a permanent uranium “enrichment program” for Iran — somehow does not recognize an Iranian right to enrich uranium and so portend a revolutionary jihadist regime possessed of nuclear bombs.

Though never desirable, presidential fraud might be tolerable if this were 1995 again. But it is not — our times are grave. Unlike the days of the Clinton bender, the question is not how the president is going to survive another fine mess he’s gotten himself into. The question is how we are going to survive this president.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.

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