This is it. The election of Barack Obama may be the last, best chance for America to salvage our mortally wounded political system. Most rational politicians and commentators from both parties know that the legitimacy of the American political system is at a dangerously low ebb in the eyes of most of the public. Pressured by a crippling financial crisis and two pointless and endless wars (one illegally and cynically undertaken), America’s inability to use the election of Barack Obama as way to jump-start a new and responsive politics may signal a system irretrievably broken.
That’s why so many on both the right and the left have gone gaga over last week’s remarkably substantive and instructive exchange between President Obama and the Republican leadership in Baltimore. The live Q&A at the Republican House retreat showed what politics can look like when it’s grounded in fact-based disagreement about substantive policy initiatives. It was a brief, shining moment when American politics was engaged rationally, maturely and factually. It defied sound bites (despite the brief snippets of the session aired on Fox News) and ideological posturing. Politics, it seemed, was for grown-ups.
Almost immediately calls came for additional Q&A sessions with the President. From the press, from Democrats. And even from House Republicans. Grover Norquist, the uber-right and influential political strategist and head of Americans for Tax Reform argued, in a commentary on NPR, that we should regularize and institutionalize these Q&As between President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership. The White House has wisely resisted the invitations for regular Q&As, in the model of the British “Prime Minister’s Questions.” Much as I’d love to see regular airings of these sessions, President Obama is right to be cautious.
In fact, calls by the Republicans for future Q&A sessions should be viewed with deep suspicion. Can anyone imagine Norquist and others on the right clamoring for Presidential Q&As with the opposition party if Sarah Palin were President? Many of those on the right are the same people who howled in protest at the slightest attempt to engage former President George W. Bush in an in-depth explanation of his policy choices. In fact during the eight years of the Bush Presidency, even putting a follow-up question to the President at a news conference was regarded by the right as an act of disloyalty. It was as though questioning the President – like cutting back on shopping after 9/11 — would allow the terrorists to win.
The truth is that even Bush’s own supporters feared that he wasn’t up to the task of a sustained policy discussion that was grounded in fact, rather than slogans. The presidential debate format was essentially gutted to protect candidate Bush from challenging exchanges with the more intellectually hefty Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. The infamous picture of President Bush with what looked like a microphone wire under the back of his suit jacket during the 2004 debate was so believable simply because most people thought that Bush was unlikely to be up to the task of debating Kerry without help. Vice President Cheney was openly contemptuous of the idea that he should be questioned by the press or the American public. His “debate” with Joe Lieberman in 2000 and John Edwards in 2004 consisted of sit-down discussions – a format Cheney insisted on.
Not even an investigation into the 9/11 attacks warranted calls from Republicans for the President to subject himself to questioning. After President Bush’s intense resistance to questioning by the 9/11 investigative Commission that he had created (reluctantly), Bush finally agreed to appear before the Commission but only if he could bring Vice President Cheney with him. And with an agreement that their session with the 9/11 Commission could not be recorded.
Now some Republicans claim they’d like President Obama to regularly submit to Q&A sessions with the opposition party. What those Republicans really want is a do-over. The prevailing view is that they were bested by President Obama in Baltimore, and Republicans want a chance for a re-match. And you can bet that any future Obama/Republican Q&A would not be marked by the kind of intelligent and civil exchange we saw in Baltimore. I’m betting that we’d be more likely to see the kind of Rep. Joe Wilson, “you lie” antics that so successfully rallies the Republican base, and corrodes our political discourse. Meanwhile the more clear-headed Republicans on the other side of the aisle like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas rightly recognize that Republicans have little to gain from future Q&As with the President. This kind of exchange doesn’t play to the Republican strengths. Once you remove the slogans and the rhetoric and get down to brass tacks – just being in opposition to someone else’s idea is hard to sustain as compelling TV over the course of an hour.
This is not to say that we don’t need more of the kind of exchange we saw in Baltimore. Not as political gamesmanship, but to energize and invigorate our pathetically juvenile and shallow political discourse. The President’s command of the details of his policy initiatives – from the economy to healthcare – didn’t show that his positions are the correct ones, or without flaws. But President Obama showed first and foremost his respect for the office of the Presidency, his sense of accountability to the voters who elected him. The President showed his maturity and full engagement and understanding of the policies he advances — something that other countries take for granted in their leaders. It was a stunning and important display of political sophistication, but only to a country starved of this kind of intellectually gifted and fearless leadership. The respectful and intelligent presentation by the Republicans at the Retreat of their views and objections to the President’s initiatives was also commendable, and gave voters a real chance to think through the issues on the table without the incendiary diversion of the word “socialism” as a blanket opposition to anything proposed by this President.
But the task of salvaging the legitimacy of our political system is not just up to President Obama and the few Republicans who seem up for civil and productive dialogue. Most of the Republican leadership continues to embrace a belief that politics is just saying whatever you can get away with, and ensuring that the other guy fails. The recent announcement by Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama that he would put a hold on the confirmation of more than a score of Obama’s nominees is just another example of short-sighted immaturity that has become the Republican approach to politics. The Baltimore Q&A between President Obama and the Republicans presented a brief glimpse of what our political discourse could be like. But President Obama is right to reject future invitations for Q&As with the Republicans. At least until Republicans begin to do their part to help transform our ailing political system into one deserving of the respect and engagement of an informed and rational electorate.