Truth imitates fiction

The appointment of Joe Biden suggests Barack Obama is borrowing campaign tips from <em>The West Wing

The appointment of Joe Biden as VeePee confirms the pattern, obvious to a certain section of society, that we are living out a version of The West Wing, the world’s most addictive television show about politics.

In NBC’s The West Wing a young, but fantastically good-looking, and unexpected, presidential candidate looks to balance his ticket with an older white guy with tons of foreign policy experience.

Yes, West Wing fans have spotted it. Joe Biden is, of course, Leo McGarry. Leo was the older experienced politician who knew everything that was to be known about foreign policy. Let’s hear it for Joe Biden, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. He brings weight and experience, and adds an elder statesman to the Obama ticket. No similarity there then.

Is this West Wing-itis and am I the only one noticing? Every time something new happens in the US election campaign there is someone making an X Files theme tune noise in my ear.

There is an eerie parallel to the TV show that US political obsessives, and others, consumed, week after week, for seven long series.

For months the similarities have been clear – first up there was the Matt Santos factor. For non WW fans Santos was the stunningly good-looking Democratic presidential candidate in the last series. Not only was he the first non-white presidential candidate, but he didn’t want to play the race card; had the stunning wife, and the beautiful, telegenic children. Television crews loved him, but hardened political hacks said he could never get on the ticket. He just didn’t have enough foreign policy experience.

No one expected him to win the nomination. But guess what? He did. He came from miles behind, overhauled the strong front-runner with all the experience, surfing a huge wave of support from the public everyman, by way of his amazing public oration.

Obviously that was just telly, and nothing like reality. Until Obama came along.

Not only did Obama follow Santos’s fictional footsteps, but McCain was edging into Alan Alda’s shoes. Alda, as some may remember, played Arnold Vinick, a moderate Republican, who alienated the Conservative right, was a moderate middle-of-the-roader on some social issues and found support among Democrats. Vinick, like McCain, was a long-term Senator.

Now we have the Democratic Party Convention – in the West Wing episodes it was messy, with candidates still vying for position. In reality of course it has been nothing like that. Except for the Clintonistas, and the call for a vote on the floor, and Geraldine Ferraro asking after Hilary Clinton’s speech, why black women had not backed Hilary, and sprinkling the faintest of praise on Obama, so faint in fact you could hardly see it.

Nothing messy about that.

The episodes roll on – and this DNC is far closer to a television drama than most conventions, so we move to the edge of our seats as Biden takes to the stage, along with Bill Clinton. What on earth could happen next?

If the West Wing model continues, then Obama would give a seat-tingling speech this week, and all would be right with the Democrats, who would, after a campaign like no other, manage to squeeze a last-minute victory from the edge of adversity.

West Wing fans will expect nothing less.

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.