The Blog

Bipartisan Coalition Supports Question Time

A nice-sounding idea that's not without its problems.

3:57 PM, Feb 3, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The prevailing opinion in Washington is that President Obama's debate last week with the House Republicans was a big success. Whether you are an E.J. Dionne liberal ("The Q&A was a smash success, and we need many more") or a Charles Krauthammer conservative ("I do think it should be something we ought to consider institutionalizing"), you probably enjoyed the opportunity to watch the president and his congressional opponents go at it in a civil manner. I did too!

The latest response to the Baltimore encounter is a bipartisan petition to hold such sessions regularly. Signatories run the gamut from Jane Hamsher to Ed Morrissey. Here's the pitch:

This was one of the best national political debates in many years. Citizens who watched the event were impressed, by many accounts. Journalists and commentators immediately responded by continuing the conversation of the ideas put forward by the president and his opponents — even the cable news cycle was disrupted for a day.

America could use more of this — an unfettered and public airing of political differences by our elected representatives. So we call on President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner to hold these sessions regularly — and allow them to be broadcast and webcast live and without commercial interruption, sponsorship or intermediaries.

The White House seems eager to repeat the Baltimore experience with the Senate Republicans. But before we go about institutionalizing an American version of question time, let's consider a few things:

(1) America is not a parliamentary democracy. The president is half-king, half prime-minister. He is separate from and coequal to the Congress. The Constitution stipulates only that he make an annual report to the Congress. He does not have to make an overly long televised speech that serves to buck up partisans and set the agenda for the year. He does not have to regularly submit to questions from his opponents. Why?

(2) Because the president represents all Americans. His stature and concerns are therefore greater than those of individual congressmen. And the debate between the two branches will not always be civil. Fans of Prime Minister's Questions on C-SPAN are no doubt aware that these sessions can easily devolve into shouting-matches. The Baltimore show was polite because both Obama and the GOP had an incentive to show a willingness to cooperate and hear the other side out. The political context in which the meeting took place will not last forever, though. Imagine what question time would look like between the Pelosi Democrats and a President Bush with 30 percent approval ratings. There, the incentives would be very different. One "You lie!" is enough.

(3) The president already answers plenty of questions. Obama gives press conferences where he takes questions from an adversarial press (though press antagonism rises in inverse proportion to the president's approval rating). Presidents go to townhall meetings and, if they stand for reelection, they campaign vigorously in a variety of settings and engage in several debates. The more time an executive spends talking, campaigning, and debating, the less time he has for actual work. Nor does all this talk necessarily equal results. Obama is ubiquitous, but his agenda remains stalled in Congress. Some of us could use a break from all the presidential media attention anyway.

(4) Organization would be a huge problem. The United States has a bicameral legislature. Will the president speak to each conference separately? Or will he speak to the assembled Republicans, House and Senate both? How often will he do so? Meanwhile, Obama spoke to the Senate Democratic caucus today, and the meeting was a colossal bore. What's the point of taking questions from Senators you agree with? And what about unelected yet prominent members of the opposition? Or governors? Shouldn't they be included? The president deals with them as well.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers