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Why Question Time Is Right for Obama, House GOPers and Washington

4 years ago
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At Wednesday's White House daily briefing, I asked deputy press secretary Bill Burton if the Obama administration would say yes to the cross-partisan coalition of bloggers, commentators, politicos and techies calling on the president and GOP congressional leaders to commit to regular, frequent and public Q&As between the commander-in-chief and the opposition party. (I have a special interest in the matter, as one of the organizers of this barely organized effort.) Burton, no doubt, had anticipated the query, and he noted that White House strategist David Axelrod had already maintained that what made last week's face-off between Obama and House Republicans so special was "the spontaneity that occurred there." Burton added, "And it's going to be hard to sort of re-create that spontaneity that happened." Consequently, he said, Obama will look for more opportunities to hold "open discussions on important issues. But in terms of a regularly scheduled event, I don't have anything for you on that." A reporter leaned over to me and said, "You can take that as a no."

A no it was. But the reason was odd. How much spontaneity is in the State of the Union? Or House and Senate floor debates? Or presidential campaign debates? In fact, there's precious little spontaneity in many political forums. Yet they still have value. The aim of the Demand Question Time coalition is not to inject spontaneity into government and politics, but to enhance debate and boost transparency.

Since the campaign was launched on Wednesday, thousands have signed the group's petition. More important, a conversation about the idea has been kick-started. Pundits, academics, bloggers and commentators have weighed in. There have been plenty of hoorays. But, of course, there have been folks eager to poke at it. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz said he was skeptical:

If it were to happen again, such an event would be far more scripted. Each side would come armed with poll-tested sound bites. There would be negotiations over how much time each side would get to prevent presidential filibustering. It would be more of a standard-issue political debate. And what president would want to subject himself to that, giving critics regular access to his mighty megaphone?

The Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti had a similar huff:

Soon a Commission on Question Time would be formed to agonize endlessly over the details. The events would lose their spontaneity. They would turn into the canned and boring presidential debates in no time. America does not suffer from a shortage of political discourse! Let the president and Congress do their jobs and perform the regular rituals of American democracy. And if it strikes the president's fancy, let him meet with the opposition and answer their questions. But don't institutionalize it. Keep the government's hands off question time.

It's true. There are many ways a Question Time could go wrong. But first it would have to exist. And if both sides had to meet in this sort of forum, competition would push each to perform at a high level. A president who only tosses out well-rehearsed spin in response to solid questions would look like a canned politician. Opposition members who grandstand or take cheap shots would risk appearing like fools. Many citizens are already predisposed to think poorly of their elected leaders. In this setting, the officials who display intelligence and authenticity would stand out. Those who rely on sound bites could come across poorly. A long-winded president would not win over the citizenry. (Remember Bill Clinton's speech at the 1988 Democratic convention?)

Question Time would not be a standard-issue political debate, if it were a true and direct encounter between the president and the opposition, with no moderator. The chief executive and the legislators would be judged not solely by their questions and answers but also by how they manage the session. If they turn the event into a phony exchange, they will be seen as phony. And there's no need to get bogged down in endless, back-and-forth wrangling over the logistics. The Baltimore model is a fine one. Obama and the House Republicans have already established a decent standard.

Certainly, politicians do not fancy committing to anything that could pose a problem. And the White House is clearly not eager to share the president's bully pulpit with his foes. Obama fared well in Baltimore, but it's not hard to imagine future circumstances under which a scheduled Question Time session might not be in the president's political interests. And though some House GOPers are interested in a second round, House Republican leader John Boehner, like the White House, won't commit. Informed sources tell me that it's unlikely Boehner will agree to regular Question Time before the White House does. So, stalemate. Unless there is pressure.

The historic question-and-answer encounter between Obama and the House GOPers -- which was not initially planned to be televised -- was not the usual political discourse. That's why so many people were excited and encouraged by it. In a political-media environment dominated by excessive rhetoric and news cycles lasting nanoseconds, this seemed to be a moment out of time. The ongoing uber-debate slowed down, and Obama and the Republicans were forced to deal with each other in a civil and serious manner. This event showed how easily certain change could be implemented in Washington. No legislation was needed. No negotiations. No game-playing. Obama was invited, he showed up, they talked, the cameras rolled. Of course, it would be possible to do that again. (Yes we can?) Spontaneity doesn't matter. What matters most is how much desire there is for enhanced and improved political debate -- not among the politicians, but among the people they supposedly serve.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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