Bartlet Style

10.02.13

‘The West Wing’ Government Shutdown Episode Is Frighteningly Familiar

The cult NBC favorite had its government shutdown episode that feels strikingly similar to today’s crisis. Marlow Stern on how President Bartlet got the House Republicans to make a deal.

We’ve reached Day 2 of the first government shutdown in 17 years. For those of you living under a rock, or those who have become so thoroughly disenchanted with House Speaker John Boehner and the “House of Turds,” as the New York Daily News so eloquently described them, that you’ve decided to focus on more agreeable pursuits, the federal government closed for business after Congress failed to agree on a continuing resolution to fund government agencies.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, well, it should.

About a decade ago, the fifth season of the acclaimed NBC series The West Wing dealt with a similar scenario. In “Shutdown,” the fiscal year is nearing its September 30 close. Democratic President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and House Speaker Jeff Haffley (Steven Culp) have verbally agreed on budget cuts of 1 percent, mostly from social programs. However, at the last moment, the Republican speaker demands 3 percent in cuts that would slash funding on education programs, clean energy research, and other issues near and dear to the president’s heart. The two meet face-to-face in the Roosevelt Room. It lasts just six minutes.

“Let’s be clear, sir. You will be held responsible for shutting down the federal government,” says Haffley.

“Then shut it down,” the president replies.

The blame for the disruption, in the eyes of the media and the public, will fall on the Bartlet administration. “Christmas came early this year,” Haffley says as he and his fellow Republicans are leaving the White House.

Later, Haffley explains his reasoning for the eleventh-hour demands that caused the government shutdown:

“We are governing. We’re slowing the rate of federal spending increases, we’re stopping this president from driving the country deeper into debt and leaving our children to pay for it. We’re doing what we told the voters we’d do if they elected us.”

Video screenshot

See how the shutdown in ‘The West Wing’ is similar to what’s going on today.

That rhetoric sounds eerily like the House Republicans of 2013, whose demands include a one-year delay on Obamacare provisions, the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and a vote by Congress on tax reform by year’s end.

Back on The West Wing, Bartlet remains steadfast, refusing to agree to the proposed cuts. When the government shutdown reaches its second day, 940,000 government employees are out of work. Children are on the news complaining about the Smithsonian being closed. A cover of Time magazine reads, “THE NEW BOSS?” with a picture of a grinning Haffley. Nearly 200,000 military veterans can’t get their home loans processed.

So the president takes action.

After a brief stop to address a group of tourists from Kansas loitering outside the closed National Archives, the president and his key staffers march over to the Capitol to address Haffley and his caucus. With members of the media present, the caucus makes them wait for seven minutes outside while they devise a game plan. So Bartlet and Co. decide to leave, making it seem as if the House Republicans were “cowering in their office,” as the news reports say, instead of dealing with the president.

“I’m not going to negotiate with anyone who holds a gun to my head!” screams President Bartlet. “We had a deal!”

With the media now firmly on Bartlet’s side, Haffley agrees to meet with the president for a private discussion. Again, he demands 3 percent in budget cuts.

“I’m not going to negotiate with anyone who holds a gun to my head!” screams the president. “We had a deal!”

After two hours, the two sides finally reach an agreement: 1 percent.

With the fiscal cliff and a potential shutdown looming late last year, a clip of the “Shutdown” episode circulated online. But this time, the similarity is even more striking. In both cases, a Republican House speaker and his caucus are holding a Democratic president, the Senate, and the nation hostage over broad social cuts they’ve long desired. They’re also trying to make the president look incompetent. The Democratic presidential administration refuses to budge, and the government is shut down.

Late Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid angrily denounced House Republicans in language eerily reminiscent of President Bartlet.

“We will not go to conference with a gun to our heads,” he said.