As many regular Gaggle readers know, I grew up in Australia. One of my favorite parts of political culture there is Question Time, where the prime minister stands before the House of Representatives and takes whatever questions they dare throw at him. (I say "him" because there's never been a female P.M.) It's boisterous, it's feisty, it's full of blunt accusations, smart quips, and, believe it or not, reasoned explanations for policy decisions. I love it. Today, when the president took questions from the House Republican caucus in Baltimore, I watched the closest thing I've ever seen to Question Time in the United States. And it was awesome.
The president clearly enjoyed himself. When Rep. Mike Pence mentioned the president might be running out of time, the president retorted "No, I'm havin' fun!" Indeed, it was a good time for the president. He spent around 90 minutes forcefully and comprehensively refuting GOP talking points about his agenda and his methods, and he bluntly called Republicans out for being obstructionist. Here's one of his more interesting pushbacks (transcript via Politico):
It can't be all or nothing, one way or the other … If we put together a stimulus package in which a third of it is tax cuts that normally you guys would support, and support for states and the unemployed and helping people stay on COBRA, that certainly your governors would support … and maybe there are some things in there, with respect to infrastructure, that you don't like … If there's uniform opposition because the Republican caucus doesn't get 100 percent or 80 percent of what you want, then it's going to be difficult to get a deal done, because that's not how democracy works."
I think the reason the session was both compelling and refreshing is that although the past year has brought us some of the most heated political exchanges in recent memory, Republicans and Democrats haven't actually been in dialogue with each other. We see endless statements and responses, but it's so difficult to judge the authenticity of these back and forths when we so often see the players in isolation. There is endless talk, but no actual conversation. It's all too easy to make outrageous claims about your opponents when you never have to say them, in public, to their faces. What we saw today was a true political debate, where both sides, in real time, were called to account and challenged. In an advanced democracy like this one, such occasions have simply become too rare.
In the original plan, only the president's opening remarks were going to be televised, but the White House later negotiated for cameras to be present for the entire event. (Evidently a smart move on their part...) Republicans appear to be regretting this decision, telling NBC's Luke Russert that allowing cameras for the Q&A was a mistake. The only conceivable reason for the GOP, which has taken to decrying Obama for breaking his promise to have C-Span cameras present at congressional negotiations, to regret the decision is because Obama wiped the floor with them. The White House, so I'm told, wants to hold these sessions often, perhaps monthly. It's starting to look unlikely that they'll be televised again. And that would be truly sad. This sort of genuine debate actually has a chance, against all odds, of changing the tone in D.C. To have the president spar with his critics face to face on a regular basis really could advance political discourse in this town, and might—just might—start to restore the public's faith that Congress can be smart and dynamic, not just a bunch of old guys with their heads in the sand.