It has been a whole week since the last and likely final Republican primary debate on CNN and the political world still continues at breakneck pace. After Mitt Romney’s wife joked that he wanted “No more debates” and the majority of the GOP candidates backed out of the March 1st debate in Georgia it became pretty clear to the networks, journalists and viewers that our Smorgasboard of reality television masquerading as verbal political combat had come to an end.
The post mortem debate over debates will rage for a couple of days after the final votes from Super Tuesday are counted, but in the end we Americans have missed an opportunity with these debates that would improve American public discourse and democracy. The President should take a page from our neighbors across the pond and introduce a “President’s Questions” to the Washington political culture.
What would “President’s Questions” mean? Quite simply an adoption of one of the most impressive and entrenched parts of British political discourse for almost 100 years. Every week the Prime Minister of England stands before the Parliament filled with his own and opposition party members and answers a barrage of questions for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes depending on the day of the week.
The Question Time or Prime Minister’s Questions has been televised by the BBC since 1989 and Margaret Thatcher (PM at the time) made it clear that she was going to make the most of this newfound way to communicate with the masses. Tony Blair’s excellent debating skills, even when he was in opposition, were a key part of his eventual election and tenure as the most successful Labour Party PM in British history. Every week with wit, facts and occasional insults he verbally parried with the opposition – which gave the British public a chance to hear him directly answer for England’s support of the War in Iraq, opposition to the Euro and a host of other issues. The segments were so popular that Blair streamlined the system from 15 minute sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays to one 30 minute period every Wednesday at noon.
Prime Minister’s questions can get rowdy, and downright rude. But, the British public is engaged, they love seeing their prime minister have to explain himself every week, and – more importantly – crucial arguments about the direction of the country are addressed and debated every week, not just in the all too infrequent “Joint Session” of Congress speeches that we get in America.
In the British system, members of Parliament sign up to ask the Prime Minister questions of their own creation. The PM has no idea what is going to be asked, and therefore has to be prepared to answer questions ranging from local water usage subsidies to foreign policy decisions. The best part is that both the PM and the member have incentive to ask substantive questions and give substantive answers since there is no media filter. A system like this would wholly transform American politics and give our primary debates some real meaning.
Imagine if George Bush had been required to stand in front of the House and Senate every week of his presidency and answer direct questions about his War on terror policies from Democratic leaders. There is no way that his case for the War in Iraq would have stood up to direct scrutiny from Democratic members of the Foreign Affairs committee. We might’ve still had a war, but the public would’ve heard sounder arguments than whatever was the GOP talking point on Rush Limbaugh that morning.
Imagine if Obama had been able to stand and face Congressional questions about the Healthcare Bill. No more GOP representatives running off to their constituencies claiming that Death Panels were coming, they’d have to directly challenge the president on policy and the entire outcome of the 2010 mid-terms would have changed.
Our current passive aggressive cowardly system of Politicians making outlandish claims on Sunday talk shows that never get challenged would be replaced by a “Say it to my face or Not at All” culture during President’s Questions. If Joe Wilson wants to scream “You Lie” during the State of the Union rather than challenge Obama directly on immigration policy during President’s questions he looks like a coward, and even the GOP couldn’t rationalize that to the press. The most pressing issues of the day could be justified, or debunked every week from the president himself for 30 easily understood and consumable minutes by the press and public.
Most Americans never get to ask politicians direct questions about policy and even when given the chance the majority of voters lack the skill to ask the question that will get them the answer they want.
Worse, the American press is hamstrung by a trade-off system with Presidents where access is granted based on political expedience rather than public discourse. The President of the United States is not obligated to have press conferences and even when they do, the questions are pre-submitted and everyone from Regan to Obama has had the choice of who they will or will not call upon. Ask a volatile question, and you’ll find yourself holding up your hand for an hour like a 4th grader who never gets called on.
This is not such a far-fetched concept to introduce to American politics. We steal ideas from the British all the time. More importantly as recently as the 2008 presidential election John McCain said that he would introduce an American version of Prime Minister’s questions specifically saying in a speech in Columbus Ohio in May of 2008:
“I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.”
Let’s be honest, most presidents that we’ve had would do lousy in a Prime Minister’s Questions format, they lack the skill, wit or grasp of enough issues to answer questions on the fly. Nixon would be too angry to submit to questions. Reagan would have done well. Clinton would have done well and the entire Lewinsky scandal would’ve played out differently. George W. Bush? He had the fewest press conferences of any president since the advent of television, so he would’ve been eaten alive by Nancy Pelosi.
Check out his debate with the ENTIRE GOP Congressional delegation in early 2010, I won’t say he took them to the woodshed, but by the end House Speaker John Boehner was trying to get him off stage because he was taking out GOP members left – and right and they couldn’t counter. And isn’t that what we want in American politics? Politicians who can answer direct questions and justify their positions?
I don’t think the GOP debates would be as much of a problem if we knew they had some real bearing on how the candidates would do their jobs. If we knew that Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney was prepping to go head to head with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid every week, I think these debates would not just be a side show and rating bonanza, but a bold new step in American public discourse.
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.