Monday, February 01, 2010

Presidential Question Time In The Senate?

President Obama's "Question Time" -- deeply reminiscent of the Prime Minister's Question Time in the UK -- was widely hailed. It was, in fact, American political theater at its finest. Mark Ambinder in TheAtlantic wrote of the performance:

More than the State of the Union -- or on top of the State of the Union -- this may be a pivotal moment for the future of the presidential agenda on Capitol Hill. (Democrats are loving this. Chris Hayes, The Nation's Washington bureau chief, tweeted that he hadn't liked Obama more since the inauguration.)

During the presidential campaign, it was John McCain who proposed a form of the British Prime Ministers' questions for the president. It was derided as a gimmick. This is no gimmick. I have not seen a better and perhaps more productive political discussion in this country in...a long time. 90 minutes worth!

...Mused one mid-level White House official: "This really is the best thing we've done in a long, long time"

Kudos to Republicans for opening this up to cameras.

Actually, The President's Question Time at the House Republican conference's retreat in Baltimore Friday was far more elegant than the often raucous Prime Minister's Question Time. So, we ask, why not make this a more common occurrence on the American political scene? This is precisely the sort of political dialogue that independents crave. And why not have a formal President's Question Time at regular intervals, before the United States Senate, televised on C-Span?

The United States Senate is considered the most aristocratic body outside of the so-called Princes of the Church, the college of Cardinals. Because Senators have 6-year terms, they are -- theoretically, at least -- less swayed by the popular winds. The dialogue in the Senate, as opposed to that in the House, is more deliberative. The U.S. Senate contains an interesting cross-section of American types, gazillionaires (Rockefeller, McCain, Kerry), independentish populists (Webb, Brown, Snowe, Graham) partisans (the Senate leadership) and, of course, centrist traditionalists (Byrd, the short lived Gang-of-14). The present make up of the United States Senate, particularly with this President (now chastened by the loss of the so-called "Kennedy seat"), makes for as close to a sober dialogue as we've had between the executive and legislative branches in a while.

Clearly, the idea of a President's Question Time would not work with the United States House of Representatives. The House is too diffuse and handicapped with 2-year terms. A President's Question Time before the full House would dissolve into partisan talking points. A President's Question Time before the Senate, however, could be interesting.

Two moderate Presidential candidates -- Bush, 41 and McCain in 2008 -- in moments of electoral weakness, proposed similar ideas. They came to naught. President Obama, in search of the Independents, is in a similar position. As the sitting head of state, however, and gifted with wit and striking rhetorical gifts, it seems like a no-brainer for President Obama. If his performance in Maryland in the "Lion's Den" serves as any indication of how such an event would play out, why not? It would be a magnificent post=partisan maneuver, an interesting new political tradition to add a President's Question Time to the political calendar. The degree to which Bush-Rove's 51-49 strategy divided this country is still being felt resonates deeply throughout the country and in both houses. In the Senate, in particular, the intransigence of the McConnell-led Republicans is a massive roadblock to real reform or any kind of bipartisanship. On the Democrat side, the President admitted at the House Republican retreat his error in the closed, backroom deals at the tail end of the health-care debate (Not, we cannot fail to note, televised on C-Span). The House, during this election year, is probably beyond any meaningful post-partisan conversation. The relationship between the Senate and the President, however, is not at present beyond repair.

Make this happen now. Resolved: A Presidential Question Time In The Senate is an idea whose time has come.

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