When The West Wing’s President Jed Bartlet debated his Bush-like opponent (James Brolin), his Nobel Prize brilliance carried the day and sealed the election. On Friday night, Senator Kerry was hoping to turn in a similar performance. But while he was aggressive and even eloquent at times, he was no Jed Bartlet.
For one thing, he continued his pattern of self-contradiction. At first, he held himself up as a model of consistency on Iraq: “Well, let me tell you straight up: I’ve never changed my mind about Iraq. I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat. I always believed he was a threat.” But in discussing Iran a few minutes later, he had a sudden change of heart about the Iraqi threat: “And what’s interesting is, it’s a threat that has grown while the president has been preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn’t a threat.”
Jed Bartlet would at least have the decency to wait for a commercial before executing such a reversal.
In the pilot episode of The West Wing, we learned that Bartlet is a deeply religious Catholic who made a pre-presidential tour around the country to discourage teenage girls from having abortions. But his chief of staff also explained that Bartlet “doesn’t believe that it’s the government’s place to legislate this issue.”
During the debate, Kerry tried to toe the Bartlet line. “I’m a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy.” He wouldn’t outlaw abortion, he said. “But I can counsel people. I can talk reasonably about life and about responsibility. I can talk to people, as my wife Teresa does, about making other choices, and about abstinence, and about all these other things that we ought to do as a responsible society.”
Why would he take no legal steps to curb abortion? “I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith.” That rationalization does not hold up. In July, he said that he believes “life does begin at conception.” If he takes that statement seriously, then he has to believe that it applies to all human life, not just to the babies of his coreligionists.
The more he talked about the issue, the less sense he made. He claimed that “you don’t deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the constitution affords them if they can’t afford it otherwise.” So it follows that if the Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms, the government must help poor people buy weapons. I do look forward to his Gun Stamps proposal.
Somewhere in TV land, President Bartlet is shaking his head in disapproval.
–John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.