The President’s popularity soars. His ambitious legislative agenda seems inevitable. His party is united behind him while his opposition is disorganized and ineffectual.
Then things change.
The opposition gets its act together, rallying around issues that have little to do with the legislation in question. Those attacks and a sense of inaction drive the President’s approval ratings way down. It’s an election year, so members of his own party start pulling away, refusing to support the President’s agenda for fear of riding a sinking ship into election day.
Sound familiar? It’s the plot of both 2010’s cable news channels and of the 1995 film The American President.
Notorious Hollywood liberal types Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin made The American President, the romantic story of a widower Democratic President Andrew Shepherd, who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist. Their courtship becomes a major political issue as his reelection campaign heats up, driving down the President’s poll numbers, derailing his legislative agenda, and threatening his chances of reelection. Yesterday, Mr. Perich posted a great piece on the traditional romantic comedy theme of love vs career. The American President exemplifies that sort of movie, but when the career in question is the Presidency of the United States of America, you’ve got to wonder if love is the answer in this particular case. Given the consequences for the country and the world, the political suicide of Andrew Shepherd makes this film not only a sort of political pornography for liberals, but a full blown tragedy as well.
The American President was made in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s first term, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of the Clinton presidency. It takes a firm stand on the issue of whether or not the public has a right to know about a politician’s personal life and parodies the hysteria over Hilary Clinton’s influence over the President’s decisions. In his internal struggle over whether to fight the fights that need fighting or the fights that he can win, Shepherd echoes the liberal criticism of Clinton’s early years, when instead of health care reform, America got NAFTA.
In the 1992 campaign, James Carville famously said “It’s the economy, stupid,” but in the early 90’s, the other hot-button political issue of the day was crime. With the Soviets out of the game, we needed something else to be afraid of, so pundits made their fortunes predicting soaring murder rates as a generation of angry teenagers took to the streets (this was also only a few years after Dukakis got beat by Willie Horton).
As the film opens, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) has responded with “the crime bill.” Polling shows that the administration’s high approval rating (63%) will plummet if he can’t get the bill passed. All we know about the bill is that his staff thinks it won’t be effective because it doesn’t do anything to limit handguns or assault weapons. He’s leaving the guns out because he knows that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will crush the bill in Congress if those provisions are included.
As his staff has just discussed:
A. J. MacInerney: Oh, and Leon, don’t be the nice, sweet guy from Brooklyn on this one. Do what the NRA does.
Leon Kodak: What, scare the s#!t out of them?
A. J. MacInerney: Exactly.
Leon Kodak: I can do that.
For those who don’t know, the NRA is probably the most effective lobbying organization in the United States. Founded by the gun industry decades ago, they’re incredibly well funded, have a rabid base of supporters all over the country and can cost a politicians thousands of votes if they decide to take him/her out. In a close race, the NRA can make the difference. They haven’t been in the news too much lately because nobody’s introducing any legislation to even inconvenience people looking to buy guns. In other words, they’ve won.
The other bill in the film is bill #455, which will reduce the emissions from fossil fuels by 20%. 15 years later, it would still be the most significant piece of environmental legislation in history. Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a hired gun lobbyist for the fictional Global Defense Council, first meets the President while lobbying for this bill. It’s love at first sight.
As their relationship progresses, it becomes the target of media scrutiny, with the whole world wanting to know about the President’s girlfriend. Presumptive Republican nominee, Senator Bob Rumson (played by Richard Dreyfuss – this was before Bob Dole started his acting career), starts activating his base, questioning the influence of this left-wing lobbyist who’s literally in bed with the President. When she’s caught after spending the night in the White House and a picture surfaces of a younger Sydney standing behind a burning flag at an Apartheid protest, even the independents start questioning the morality of having a “First Mistress” and the patriotism of President Shepherd. Within weeks, his approval rating drops from 63% to 41%.
Positioning themselves away from Shepherd, moderate Democrats with tough reelection campaigns start bailing on the crime bill. Michael J. Fox channels a future White House Chief of Staff and calls one cowardly Congressman a “chicken s#!t lame-ass.” Fox is clothed at the time. Desperate to pass the bill, the President cuts a deal to shelve the climate bill in return for three votes. Sydney dumps him. Recognizing that he’s made the wrong choice, the President storms into the press room less than an hour before the State of the Union address and delivers this climactic speech:
With 35 minutes to go and the approval of Helen Thomas, they rewrite the State of the Union, Sydney comes back, and Congress stands up to applaud wildly as the President walks in the House chamber to deliver his speech.
Warm, fuzzy feelings abound. With this single speech, we’re led to believe, President Shepherd has saved his relationship, his presidency, his party, and the American dream.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that soaring rhetoric can start a movement, but it’s only the beginning. Fiery speeches started the American revolution, but there was still a war to win. Obama inspired a nation, but we’re still working on health care. Shepherd’s speech was inspiring, personal and powerful, but it was only the beginning of the end.
Here’s what really happened next:
With major changes to his State of the Union made at the last minute and his attention focused on Sydney, Shepherd has had no time to practice the new draft. With only seconds to load it into the teleprompter and no time for copy-editing, the speech itself is rife with errors, its flow and transitions shot to hell. He’s a professional, so it’s not awful, but there are a couple of fumbles and the speech doesn’t do anything to shift the focus away from his personal life.
Then the fun begins.
When Shepherd made the deal to get votes for the crime bill by sacrificing the climate bill, it became clear that there was at least some bipartisan support for an anti-crime package – traditionally a Republican favorite. The NRA was ok with it, and presumably Shepherd, because he left guns out of the bill. He’s now thrown the bill out, enraging the NRA in the process by saying he’ll “go door to door” to “get the guns.” He has deprived Democratic Members of Congress a vote that could make them look tough on crime and replaced it with a purely partisan vote on a climate bill that the Republicans will call a “job-killer.” Meanwhile, the big oil companies, which spend millions of dollars a year fighting any sort of climate legislation are now going to be spending that money against vulnerable Democrats who support #455 (FYI: The oil and gas industry spent more $168 million on lobbying in 2009). States that produce a lot of fossil fuels and lots of gun owners suddenly start moving into Rumson’s column – West Virginia (5 electoral votes), Michigan(18) and Pennsylvania(23).
Meanwhile, Senator Rumson has been attacking Shepherd for putting an unelected left-wing lobbyist in an incredibly sensitive and powerful position. How does Shepherd respond? He makes a major policy decision for the sole purpose of making his girlfriend happy. In private, he tells Sydney that he didn’t do it for her, but that’s not what the public record says.
The next morning countless news stories will recount the public details: Wade dumps Shepherd, Shepherd admits that he’s lost her in that press conference, then announces that her bill is the new priority for his administration, then she shows up with him at the State of the Union. The advance copies of the State of the Union had gone out to the press hours before the revisions were made, so they will be able to compare the two speeches and give specific examples of the power of Sydney Ellen Wade. Add the premarital sex scandal into that and more culturally conservative states like New Mexico(5) and Arizona(8) start looking bad.
Shepherd has just proven Rumson right beyond a shadow of a doubt, a fact that the right is going to be crowing about for the next 10 months. Older men tend to vote Republican, and even those who do vote Democrat are more likely to suspect a woman in a powerful position. Then the morning talk shows start parsing the press conference, pointing out that Shepherd went on the attack, publicly criticizing Rumson while standing in front of that big White House symbol. Tradition has always held that a President shouldn’t campaign from the White House and older women voters who traditionally lean Democrat, also tend to be turned off by violations of this kind of tradition and can be turned off by personal attacks, reducing their likelihood of turning out to vote. That hurts Shepherd, but also hurts other Democrats in close races. Even the White House press corps frowns on this sort of thing coming from the Administration. Older voters abandon the Democrats or stay home – now you’re losing aging states like Ohio(21) and Florida(25).
But he’s not done – he hasn’t patronized middle America yet. In a dismissive, mocking tone, Shepherd describes Rumson’s strategy: “That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character.” Those middle-class, middle-income voters are bound to start wondering what’s wrong with family and American values.
Think the Midwest value voters still like you too much? Why not combine two sensitive topics: flag burning and children. “The symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest,” Shepherd says. “Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.” The newspapers may be looking at policy shifts in the Shepherd Administration, but Rush Limbaugh spends the next week talking about the President’s plan to teach America’s children to burn flags. There go the veterans and the soccer moms. Say goodbye to Iowa(7).
So let’s take a look at the score:
It takes 270 electoral votes to win the Presidency. In 1996, in addition to the usual blue states, Clinton won the swing states of Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia -a total of 112 electoral votes.
In this single speech, Shepherd alienated voters in every one of those swing states. Meanwhile, the climate bill stalls when moderate Democrats refuse to sign on and the President’s agenda flounders for an entire year. Rumson, riding a tide of moral outrage and policy failures, spends his massive campaign war chest in the right places. In November, Shepherd loses them all, earning a total of 267 electoral votes to Rumson’s 271. He and Sydney retire to Wisconsin, emerging only to film bipartisan pleas for assistance with Dave and the other fictional Presidents whenever there’s a big natural disaster.
Thanks to Shepherd’s love for his girlfriend, Compassionate Conservatism gets a four year head-start. That’s a tragedy, in my book.