‘Vice Special Report: A House Divided’: TV Review

Shane Smith’s news special for HBO on the demise of consensus in the Obama administration, ‘A House Divided,’ could be of service to Donald Trump.

It’s not an insult to say that Friday night’s Vice Special Report: A House Divided on HBO should be mandatory viewing for our new president-elect and his transition team.

It’s probably an insult to say that our new president-elect and his transition team have shown a general disinterest in homework, so A House Divided instead will serve as a good reminder to the rest of us about what happens when you don’t learn from history.

The Bottom Line

Instructive, if not illuminating.

RELEASE DATE Dec 09, 2016

Written, directed and hosted by Vice Media CEO Shane Smith, A House Divided is a balanced, somewhat reductive 71-minute answer to the question many Americans on both sides of the political aisle have been asking for years: How the heck did we get here?

Smith’s structure is simple and illustrative: In 2009, President Barack Obama ascended to the presidency with a Democratic House and Senate and a seeming mandate for change, only to face a dedicated opposition unwilling or unable to compromise. Fissures between branches of government became fissures within political parties, and those became fissures within the electorate itself. A country that was already (and probably always) divided saw those divisions grow. Now, after eight years of Obama, Donald Trump is about to enter the White House with a Republican House and Senate and professions of a mandate (substantial popular-vote defeat notwithstanding), and he’s surely staring down a dedicated opposition with no foreseeable incentive for compromise. What can President-elect Trump take from his predecessor as he sets out to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy? What should President-elect Trump learn if his claimed desire to unify the country is more than just lip service?

Trump didn’t speak with Smith for the special, and the centerpiece interview comes courtesy of President Obama, who reflects less on his policy objectives and achievements and more on his promises to make the politics of Washington work better, elevate debate and reduce partisanship.

“I haven’t accomplished that,” acknowledges Obama, with clear regret.

For A House Divided to feel entirely satisfying and comprehensive, you have to believe (or pretend) that, prior to January 2009, the executive and legislative branches of government worked together relatively smoothly and that they followed the will of the American people with at least enough diligence that voters were content with the status quo and that, really, Obama’s campaign-trail desire to be a unifier was almost a formality. Even if you know that’s not true, it helps to accept that Obama came to power in the midst of a near depression and that his initial stimulus package was the straw that broke government’s back and was followed by one straw after another, leading to a poor governmental camel crushed under the weight of countless straws.

From the perspective of the left, the straws represent Obama’s attempts to carry out the agenda he ran on, with the Affordable Care Act as a centerpiece, and to steer the country away from economic ruin. From the perspective of the right, the straws represent a despotic president’s attempts to disenfranchise the states, and then attempts to reach any kind of compromise — the sorts of compromise that our government literally was designed to encourage or even force — were viewed as further betrayals from factions on the even further right, producing the Tea Party and leading to upheavals in the 2010 election and beyond.

Smith and Vice are approaching this as a news special and not as a fully fleshed out documentary, and so historical perspective isn’t what they’re after. It also isn’t attempting to be punditry, so certain limitations to A House Divided may fall along partisan lines.

My own ideology is what it is, and A House Divided dodges the kind of ad hominem accusations and inferences that would come if you tried to suggest a racial component to the ongoing attempts to delegitimize Obama throughout his administration, attacks that came from both fringe media and bloggers — certainly painted as problematic pieces of our ongoing division — but also corners of the population and elected officials. If you ignore or underplay that and ignore and underplay how a split on the right led to what we kindly and generously call “the alt-right,” then here’s a big part of the division that isn’t being featured. It’s just very strange to treat the race of our first African-American president as an afterthought or nonfactor in why some people wanted to work against him. Not all people. Not most people. But some people. But that’s what I call “perspective” and what some readers will call “bias,” but from the perspective of the Vice special, I think it’s an attempt not to alienate anybody, to leave open the possibility that all can feel welcome watching and that all can feel like they’re still welcome at the political table.

The balance to A House Divided comes through in the fact that, even though Obama is the biggest name on Smith’s interview list, the special’s clear stars are former Speaker of the House John Boehner and longtime Republican strategist Frank Luntz. No Democratic legislator gets anywhere near Boehner’s exposure when it comes to explaining how certain negotiations fell apart in Obama’s first term, and it’s no coincidence that a man whom the left depicted as a crying, over-tanned Bogeyman for several years has been shifted into a face of moderation, nor that Luntz delivers several of the special’s most sincere lamentations.

“We f—ed up. We killed the goose that laid the golden egg,” says Luntz, which is a pretty horrible thing to hear about the operational government of the United States.

Whether Vice would have been as open or sympathetic to a Boehner or a Luntz eight years ago is secondary to the implied current plea that goes something along the lines of, “Here’s what Obama wanted to accomplish. Here’s what he didn’t accomplish and how it left us more splinted than ever before. Maybe this time we can do some things differently?”

A House Divided isn’t really about issues. It doesn’t say, “We can’t roll back ObamaCare, and we can’t let Trump cripple the environment, etc., etc.” It just says, “The government is supposed to work, and if it doesn’t work, we suffer.” Interview subjects like Nancy Pelosi, Eric Cantor, Lindsey Graham and Raul Labrador state their respective cases without dogma or rancor. Villains are left nebulous and amorphous — talk radio or the 114th Congress as entities — and politicians are singled out in clips, as most immature on the House or Senate floor aren’t the figures being interviewed, being gifted with the opportunity to explain or justify. [Graham may be the only interview subject who was running for president in this acrimonious cycle, and that’s no accident.]

For that reason, A House Divided also doesn’t play as an elegy to Obama’s aspirations and optimism. There’s sadness to it, but it’s a practical and pragmatic sadness, and that pragmatism should make its themes processable, regardless of party affiliation. If you follow politics and have a reasonable memory of the past nine years, it won’t be illuminating, but it could be instructive, if only the proper people would try to take the proper things from it.