First of all, don’t underestimate the value of good networking skills. I remember hearing a story once about Teddy Kennedy at some kind of local event in Boston, being able to name every single one of the 500 or 600 people in a room, and the crucial facts about them. For a politician it is an intensely valuable skill, and it is genuinely difficult to stay on top of all that information. Though, mind you, I’m not convinced Dan is THAT good at networking – he’s far too…transparent about his intentions. The only people he’s ever managed to fool are Amy and Jonah – Jonah because he’s an idiot, and Amy because Dan genuinely likes her, which bleeds through in how he interacts with her and throws her off – note that Kent, Ben and Selina are never fooled by him, not to mention his utterly ham-handed attempt to get in with Tom James in season 5.
There is a slightly weird thing in the show in that…the way the dynamics are set up, I think we’re supposed to believe that Dan is genuinely good at the communications side of things – he’s rewriting Mike’s speech drafts by season 2, he ghost wrote Selina’s book, when he has his nervous breakdown Amy brings in a writer to fill his place and come up with jokes – and yet everything we’ve specifically HEARD read out has been pretty damn terrible. Not that Selina gets MANY chances to shine – she does well (up to a point) in the Debate (my most beloved episode), and she does a passable riff on Martin Luther King’s Mountaintop speech (however offensive that appropriation was), but most of her speeches are flat out awful.
I think it’s nothing more than a mismatch between the show’s characterisation and their overall depiction of politics, because it just doesn’t make sense for Dan to be as bad writer as the writing we’ve heard indicates he is. It could be the show acknowledging a basic reality of politics which is…most political speeches are dull as ditchwater, and the people who write them know it. (Amy mocking the speech Dan wrote for Danny Chung is a beautiful example of this). And in many ways, great speeches are made by great events – RFK’s speech announcing the death of Martin Luther King, or Reagan on the Challenger disaster, or to mention a more recent, and therefore painful example, Hillary Clinton’s concession speech.
The West Wing could get terribly precious about the process of speechwriting, when the truth is, the vast majority of politicians are not inspiring to listen to, and often when they reach for inspiring rhetoric, the context in which they do so rather undermines them (see for instance Des O’Malley’s speech “I stand by the Republic” in the Irish debate on contraception in the 1980s – it sounds great, except that he went on to ABSTAIN on the crucial vote).
Dan’s biggest gift, to my mind, is that he is almost never thrown. We see this a lot, in season 1 especially, where some fuck-up imperils Selina’s plans and Dan invariably has a solution in mind within seconds. Given the fast pace of political news, and the dire need to respond QUICKLY, that is a valuable skill. The problem is that he is rarely strategic in coming up with solutions – he might solve the immediate problem, but at the cost of creating a dozen new ones. (Since Selina is ALSO a short termist, they make a dangerous combination). That’s why he works best with Amy – she is more of a strategic thinker, and knows when to act on Dan’s ideas and when to tell him to come up with three or four more (the way they both react to Dan being offered the job of running Jonah’s campaign illustrates this pretty well). I suspect we will see something similar play out with Ben. (Dan is also probably good FOR Amy in that he pushes her to be more creative and more aggressive in her thinking – not to mention that a little healthy competition never did anyone any harm).
Oddly enough though, the thing I suspect Dan would be best at, is the one thing we’ve never seen him do. Because is he not BUILT to be a campaign’s talking head – a la Kellyanne Conway, for example? He’s charismatic, he’s almost totally devoid of morals, and he’s never thrown…he’s a natural spin doctor. His more sociopathic traits become useful here – he’s almost certainly a good liar, because he never CARES that he’s lying. He wasn’t good as press secretary, but that’s because the press secretary’s entire job is to defuse tension, and that’s not a good fit for Dan, at all – he’s an attack dog. Even the way he managed the testimony before the Congressional Committee in Season 4 kind of speaks to this – Amy gets tangled up in knots, because she’s not good at…consciously presenting herself, she’s not an actress, but Dan is completely unruffled throughout (which makes me suspect she was following his lead the second time they went in front of the committee – he may even have coached her).
Which does make me wonder if they may use him in this role in season 7 – it would prevent his TV plot from feeling like a complete retread, and wouldn’t it be FUN to see Dan and Jane squaring off again, especially if the gloves are off this time?