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The Sorkinization of Democrats

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"I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the President."

President Obama delivered this line last Thursday in Charlotte to more rousing applause in the arena than any other in his address. Watching from the rafters, I was immediately reminded of a similar line spoken by Aaron Sorkin's fictional Commander-in-Chief at the end of the American President: "My name is Andrew Shephard, and I am the President."

Having come of age as a dedicated fan of The West Wing -- at least its first four seasons -- I suppose I am a "West Wing baby." Juli Weiner coined this term in an April Vanity Fair article. She refers to a generation of young staffers, on the Hill and in the White House, many of who were first exposed to politics and policy through the series. Weiner spoke to how the ideology espoused and rhetoric used by Sorkin's characters has influenced many young people who moved to Washington in recent years.

One trademark of lead characters in a Sorkin White House (or Newsroom, for that matter) is their passionate defense of both economic and social liberalism. Sorkin's White House staff would often be faced with the need to compromise with Republicans or track to the middle on certain policy debates, but most storylines involved a consistent fight to defend their policies. A press conference, a speech, or a debate often set the stage for Sorkin's heroes to ardently advocate for their ideals.

As a volunteer and onlooker at the convention, I could not help thinking how many Democrats in Charlotte finally seemed to have let go of their fear of defending beliefs deridingly referred to as "liberal" over the past decade. Americans who tuned into the primetime broadcasts undoubtedly witnessed the energy of the crowd in the arena. But the most Sorkinesque moments occurred from 6 to 9, with speakers who were unapologetic about Democratic values and policies.

In his speech, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick challenged Democrats to vigorously defend their values and policies, stating:

If we want to win elections in November and keep our country moving forward, if we want to earn the privilege to lead, it's time for Democrats to stiffen our backbone and stand up for what we believe. Quit waiting for pundits or polls or super PACs to tell us who the next president or senator or congressman is going to be. We're Americans.

Patrick's challenge was quintessentially Sorkin. It evoked the same sentiment articulated by Toby Ziegler, President Bartlett's Director of Communications, in The West Wing's first State of the Union episode. In response to positive feedback from a focus group, Toby is told to add the line "the era of big government is over" to the President's address to Congress. He pushes back with the same argument Patrick articulated. As Toby explains, "We have to say what we feel. [...] I have no trouble understanding why the line tested well, Josh, but I don't think that means we should say it! I think that means we should change it."

Many pundits argued that rhetoric like Patrick's was really about firing up the base, inside the arena and out. This came as a surprise to some since earlier in the week, Stephanie Cutter had asserted that the Convention would not be about "rallying the base."

Whether the purpose of the fiery rhetoric last week was indeed to rally the base is less important than whether Democrats will actually take heed of Patrick's challenge by showing that they are no longer afraid to defend their ideals. Are Democrats going to follow the trajectory of a Sorkin teleplay over the next 60 days by no longer engaging in policy debates against Republicans with trepidation?

There are limits to the Sorkinization of politics, of course. The president's speech, despite the aforementioned line, did not defend liberalism like a Sorkin president would have. Perhaps this was the wise approach -- a liberal rallying cry may have enthralled the base but turned off independents. With a softer tack, the president is now enjoying a 4-6 point post-Convention bump.

All eyes now turn to the debates.

In the fourth season of The West Wing, President Bartlett's re-election rides on his debate performance. His advisers have already concluded that since Americans view Bartlett as arrogant, he should take on his Republican opponent, Governor Ritchie, with gusto, not caution. Leading up to debate night, the staff wonders which President Bartlett will show up, a vigorous and brilliant advocate for liberal values, or "Uncle Fluffy."

In classic Sorkin fashion, Bartlett comes out swinging against his conservative opponent. After Ritchie adopts a generic platitude calling for tax cuts because, he argues, "Americans know how to spend their money better than the government," Bartlett's forcefully responds: "Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They're the tip of the sword. Here's my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it?!"

Similar to Sorkin's narrative, Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan have been unable to articulate the specifics of their plans to solve our nation's financial woes. Since their convention, neither candidate has given an answer extending much beyond these trite ten words. By refusing to name a single tax loophole or exemption their plan would eliminate, Romney and Ryan have failed President Bartlett's test.

And so like Bartlett's staffers, I wonder which President Obama will show up to the three debates against Governor Romney. How will Democrats engage voters over the next 60 days? Will they play it safe, as has so often been the case? I hope Democrats both challenge the vague platforms offered by the Republicans and chart a course that is unafraid and that passionately defends their beliefs -- a course that is rooted in facts, science, and yes, arithmetic.