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Video summons thoughts on larger policy issues

September 26, 2012

By BRIAN PERRY

If you enjoyed Aaron Sorkin’s rhetorically brilliant political television drama “The West Wing,” there is a treat on the Internet courtesy of Michigan Supreme Court candidate Bridget Mary McCormack and her sister, actress Mary McCormack who starred on the show for three seasons.

The show skewed liberal on policy; the hero is a liberal Democrat president played by Martin Sheen.  The dialogue boiled down policy issues into a simple proposition, destroying straw-man arguments and ignoring complexities.  It did it so well that even if I disagreed I enjoyed its art of rhetoric.

During the second season, character Toby Ziegler speaks to a police officer outside a protest against the World Trade Organization.  Ziegler engages in the political prose of the show with a meta-fictional wink to the writers: “You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper. Food is cheaper, clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s because I’m a speechwriter and I know how to make a point. It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with ‘lowers’ and ‘raises’ there? It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. And that’s it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest! One world, one peace. I’m sure I’ve seen that on a sign somewhere.” 

This is a TV show, not C-SPAN, not a policy lecture. If you change the channel because of a disagreement over funding for the National Institutes of Health, maybe primetime television isn’t for you. 

The show ended in 2006, but fans can rejoice.  The actress McCormack reunited the cast for a web video for her sister’s campaign for Michigan Supreme Court.  McCormack, the candidate, is a law professor at the University of Michigan and married to Obama White House senior counsel Steven Croley. 

Using the style and jokes from the West Wing, the video promotes McCormack and addresses her campaign’s concern that voters will check the party-line box in Michigan and neglect nonpartisan candidates (Supreme Court) on the ballot.

In the video, the character Josh Lyman explains the “crisis:” “In nonpartisan elections all across the nation, voters are leaving part of their ballots blank and they don’t even know it...People walk into the voting booth and they check the straight party ticket box and they think they have voted for everything.  But they haven’t. They still have to vote on the nonpartisan section of the ballot...Michigan is one of fifteen states that uses nonpartisan elections to choose their Supreme Court Justices.” 

The West Wing characters decide to make a video to educate the public. Done. “What’s next?” 

The video summons thoughts on larger policy issues.

First, is the option of having a party-line box (one box to vote for every party candidate) good policy? If a Democrat will likely win at the top of the ticket, it benefits Democrats at the bottom of the ticket to get that same vote. In Mississippi, if voters could push one button and register a party-line vote, that would be bad news for local Democrats.

Second, why should Supreme Court justices be nonpartisan? Some people think being nonpartisan means you’re more fair. If so, we have low standards for everybody else in our government: presidents and governors; senators and representatives; sheriffs and constables; mayors, tax collectors and district attorneys by that standard are less fair because they’re partisan. 

In Michigan, like in Mississippi, partisan affiliation does not appear on the ballot for Supreme Court.  But in both Michigan and Mississippi, parties can endorse candidates.  In Mississippi, the Mississippi Republican Party has endorsed Josiah Coleman in the Northern District, Bill Waller in the Central District and Mike Randolph in the Southern District.

In Michigan, seven candidates are running in a herd with the top two vote getters earning seats on the Supreme Court on this ballot space.  Democrats endorsed two candidates – one being McCormack.  Republicans endorsed the remaining incumbent (one incumbent is not seeking reelection) and another candidate.  The other three candidates are minor party endorsed.

Mississippi does not have the option to vote party line; each office must be voted on individually.  You’re free to vote in every race on the ballot or one or none.  Mississippi’s voter participation drop-off rate from the top of the ballot to the bottom has decreased with the advent of electronic voting machines reminding voters they left choices blank (a policy consideration for Michigan).

If you’re a fan of the West Wing, the video is a good four minute diversion and like the television show, both entertaining and a mechanism to produce interest in obscure civics.

Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC and a columnist for the Madison County Journal.  Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.

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