Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

West Wing Wednesday: Top 5 political predictions

April 24, 2013 by Holly Munson


willWelcome back for Constitution Daily’s West Wing Wednesday, where we walk and talk about everyone’s favorite political drama and the top constitutional lessons, mistakes, and moments from the show.


Despite being 14 years old—ancient by Hollywood standards—the show manages to offer political commentary that is timeless, and in some cases, eerily prescient. Today, we’ll look at the top timely political predictions, including a few where life imitates art.

1. The Buffet Rule

The West Wing, 2003: Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) explains to his interns a proposed tax on millionaires (Red Haven’s on Fire,” Season 4, Episode 17).


Today: Warren Buffet and the Obama administration have fought for a plan to require a higher share of taxes for households making more than $1 million a year. Macon Phillips, White House new media director, even credited the Will Bailey scene as an inspiration for his explanation of the plan.


The West Wing, 2004: Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) clashes with a conservative Supreme Court nominee about the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. The twist: they just might agree (“The Supremes,” Season 5, Episode 17).


(Note: Start at 1:49 below for the relevant scene.)


Today: The (real) Supreme Court is considering a case, Windsor v. United States, about whether DOMA violates the equal protection of laws as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.

3. The debt ceiling

The West Wing, 2005: With a close presidential election in full swing, the sitting president, Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), must wrestle with Congress to raise the debt ceiling (“In God We Trust,” Season 6, Episode 20).


Today: In this case, it may be less of a prediction and more of a commentary on the fact that political history repeats itself. Like many years past, in late 2012, just after the election, Congress and President Obama faced another last-minute debt ceiling clash—which compounded into the so-called fiscal cliff, and was followed just a few months later by the sequester. So many crises, so little time.

4. The 2008 election

The West Wing, 2004 – 2006: Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), a young, good-looking, idealistic congressman from Texas, rises to secure the Democratic nomination (Seasons 6 & 7).


Today (well, 2008): Barack Obama, an idealistic rising star like Santos, won the nomination and made history with his win in the 2008 election. Turns out, the similarities are no coincidence—a writer for the show, Eli Attie, revealed that the Santos character was indeed shaped by Obama, and that he even talked with David Axelrod, who at the time was working on Obama’s campaign for Senate, to learn more about Obama.


5. Privacy rights

The West Wing, 1999: When President Bartlet and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) confront a candidate for the Supreme Court about his views on a constitutional right to privacy (or lack thereof), Sam pontificates about privacy becoming the constitutional issue of the next few decades (“The Short List,” Season 1, Episode 9).


Today: Privacy certainly permeates numerous constitutional debates. Just last week, the House passed a bill called CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which died in the Senate last year—as did a related bill, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act)—but has quietly re-emerged. The bill has raised questions about the Fourth Amendment and online privacy. Another recent major debate involving privacy is the use of drones, GPS devices, and other technology for surveillance.


Recent Constitution Daily Stories


TV news anchors, cursing and the First Amendment


Discover 10 treasures from the Library of Congress


The two men who helped create the world’s greatest library


James Buchanan: Why is he considered America’s worst president?


Sign up for our email newsletter