September 19th, 2020


The '90's Aren't Calling --- And I'd Really Like Their Politics Back

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published October 10, 2017

The '90's Aren't Calling --- And I'd Really Like Their Politics Back

While "Seinfeld" seems dated, the politics of its time would be a welcome change in Washington.

Vice President Mike Pence is a better man than me: he had the good sense to walk out of today's NFL game between San Francisco 49ers and the hometown Indianapolis Colts.

I, on the other hand and situated as I am in one of the teams' markets, chose to endure three televised hours of two once-proud franchises jockeying for an early first-round draft pick.

Say what you will about Pence's decision to vote with his feet, but it adds up to another Sunday afternoon in which the escapism that is professional sports was dogged by political correctness. Small wonder NFL ratings have suffered and "The Shield's" image has taken a hit (one survey shows pro football now less popular than the NBA and Major League Baseball).

Fortunately, there's Sunday night for a different kind of escapism: comedy. Specifically, the return of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm.

About Curbed, now in its ninth season: the formula - a protagonist whose many flaws and foibles make him something of a societal wrecking ball - isn't original. In fact, it's the same formula mimicked by two other Showtime series also running on Sunday nights: Episodes (Matt LeBlanc coping with his post-Friends existence - this week being the series finale) and Dice (the comedian Andrew Dice Clay's bumbling existence in Las Vegas).

One thing to note about Curbed: although the premise is David trying to figure what to do with his life after making a fortune as the co-creator of Seinfeld, the comedy is much the same as it was twenty years - one man's many hangs-up, his circle of eccentric friends, a vast flouting of societal norms and the rule of "no hugging, no learning" (i.e., the show's characters will not evolve).

Not too long ago, a faux Seinfeld script started making the rounds on the Internet. The premise: how the characters would have acted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A germophobic Jerry's worried about dust. A Kramer box-cutter was used by one of the hijackers (he had met "Mo Atta" in Florida). Elaine's nonplussed by her boyfriend's dying in one of the fallen towers (she was going to dump him anyway), George, mistaken by one of the Tower survivors, pretends to be a first-responder.

In other words, it's not so funny and runs serious afoul of this generation's p.c. police.

So perhaps Seinfeld itself can't be resurrected its original glory, even while Larry David does a modified, one-man version of it on HBO. But there's something to be said about returning Seinfeld-era politics to the national stage.

I'm thinking: the years 1995-1997, when Seinfeld was beginning the second half of its 180-episode.

Why those years? Two reasons.

First, it featured a president who was incredibly pliant in his policy stances. 1995 and 1996 marked the second phase of Bill Clinton's political act in Washington - a time for a course correction and saving his political hide. And 1997: Clinton's emergence as a reelected president now trying to add legacy items.

Battered by a loss on health reform and humiliated in the 1994 midterm election, Clinton returned to the triangulating form that got him the job in the first place. Health care reform gave way to welfare reform. The same president who adopted "don't ask, don't tell" also signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act (not exactly a profile-in-courage moment: Clinton announced his signing of the bill close to midnight while campaigning in the Dakotas, sans a photo of the signing).

You can argue that Clinton was adjusting his sights in fear of being a one-term president. Sure, he was. The other way to look at it: his centrist acts reflected public sentiment at the time (time-limited welfare, for example, typically received 60%-70% public support while Clinton was deciding whether to side with liberal Democrats or congressional Republicans).

And that takes us to the second argument in favor of the mid-1990's arrangement: the novelty and energy provided by the first Republican-control of Capitol Hill in 40 years, as opposed to the current majorities.

The 104th Congress managed to eliminate 270 federal programs. NEA and NEH funding was slashed. Even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting took a 15% hit.

In addition to welfare, Gingrich's Congress handed Clinton line-item veto authority, revised federal telecommunications law, took a free-market approach in the Freedom to Farm Act, override a Clinton veto of securities-litigation reform and did away with the national speed limit.

Ok, so those two years tend to be exaggerated. It wasn't quite the revolution that voters had been promised. But compare that record to the accomplishments of the 115th Congress. Obamacare repeal? Tax reform?

To be fair, the current Congress has another year to play out. For all we know, there could be a deal on taxes. Perhaps such progress marks the beginning of a larger adult conversation about debt, deficits - even entitlement reform.

But that doesn't seem likely. Like a Seinfeld episode dragged out of the 1990's and into this more complicated age, what's happened to Republicans in Washington . . . well, it's not funny.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.