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Democrats can speak too loudly on national security

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19 March 2008 15:05

Last week one of my favourite blogs, Global Dashboard, presented a clip from one of my favourite TV shows, The West Wing. The blogger, Alex Evans from New York University, posted the clip as a diversion, saying it was one of his favourite moments from the program. But I'll use the post as an excuse to talk about how I think the scene illustrates what is wrong with the Democrats' approach to foreign policy.

For those who haven't watched the show, all you need to know about this scene is that the girl being harrassed at the bar is Democrat President Josiah Bartlet's daughter, Zoe, and that the men who come to her aid — Charlie, Sam and Josh — are advisers to the President:

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The scene reflects what I see as a recurring theme in The West Wing: the self-conscious attempts by the fictional Bartlet Administration to look masculine and tough.

Although the guys at the bar are clearly idiots, you can excuse them for being so disdainful towards the girl's rescuers. Sam and Josh are particularly scrawny compared to the three college 'jocks' harassing Zoe, yet the White House staffers escalate the situation. Little do the jocks know that the first daughter's bodyguards are about to bear down on them. Of course, Sam and Josh do know this, and they exploit it for their own amusement, which just embarrasses and needlessly endangers Zoe. Only Charlie has the sense to try to disarm the jocks by offering them drinks early in the scene, but even he comes over all macho at the end. Would they have been so brave without the trained killers waiting outside to rescue them?

With no West Wing DVD box set to call my own, I can't cite chapter and verse on how I think this scene is typical of the show's self-conscious masculinity, so you'll have to take my word for it. It is only in season 6 that President Bartlet begins to resist this instinct by reacting to a terrorist attack in Palestine not with air strikes but with a bold peace proposal. He's then well into his second term with nothing to lose electorally.

The show reflects a problem real-life Democrats face, which is the need to look militarily tough in order to fight off Republican claims that Democrats can't be trusted with America's national security. The danger is that, when asked to demonstrate this toughness, Democrats do it in the same unconvincingly macho way as Sam and Josh. I wouldn't want America to have a limp-wristed Democrat president who quails at the idea of using military force. But I would want one who is self-assured enough to know that displays of toughness can mask insecurities and are often counter-productive.

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