Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The futility of question time

Okay, I loved Obama's exchange with Republican members of Congress last week.  Yes, I thought he did very well there, but beyond that, it seemed like a very healthy activity for American democracy.  Our polarized system features a lot of choir-preaching and not very much debate or discussion across ideological lines.

So will we see more of this?  Not likely.  As Kevin Drum (via Bernstein) points out, it's tactically stupid for Republicans to invite Obama to do this again:
Right now Republicans have a built-in advantage when it comes to attack politics and they'd be fools to give it up. A format like this, which puts the president front and center, allows him to directly call out distortions and lies, and rewards conversation rather than machine-gun style talking points, is something Republicans should justifiably be very afraid of. Unless they're suicidal — or somehow figure out a way to take better advantage of the format — they'll never allow this to happen again. Without the noise machine, they're lost.

Beyond that, notes Ezra Klein, it's not in Republicans' electoral interests to have reasoned public discussions with Obama.  These members of Congress need to run for re-nomination among Republican primary electorates, substantial pluralities of which believe that Obama is a socialist and a foreigner and a racist and otherwise unfit to be president.  Not only do they despise Obama, but they're likely to regard anyone who collaborates with him as a traitor.  Unless you can figure out a way to be outwardly defying Obama in a venue in which he has the microphone, it's a risky venture.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

That is, unless you have some vague sense of integrity and therefore a problem with contributing to the lies your constituents are buying into.

Naive, I know, to be thinking that some formula beyond "rational choice" is possible.

-NDW

Rob Salmond said...

For the sake of argument, let's accept for a moment that (1) it would in fact be bad for Republicans to keep asking the President questions; and (2) Republicans themselves believe (1) rather than believing that they can destroy his policy platform through asking embarrassing questions. In that scenario, shouldn't the administration continually offer up these opportunities, forcing Republicans to pay the reputational cost of repeatedly and prominently refusing to engage with a guy that most Americans consider reasonable and intelligent?

Seth said...

Rob, yes, I think Obama would be wise to keep offering these opportunities, but I doubt the Republicans would pay much of a reputational cost for declining. Republicans thus far have largely been obstructing Obama and the Democrats -- what price are they paying?

Rob Salmond said...

Seth - I'm not sure of the connection here, for two reasons. First, the position "I hate Obama's agenda, so I'll use every tool I can to thwart it" is at least internally consistent, in a way that "I have many questions about this President's actions, but I don't want to ask him to his face" is not. Second, an issue for Rebublicans in turning down opportunities to ask questions is that the political media have an interest in promoting these sessions, making them more likely to jump on anything that unilaterally prevents them.

Seth said...

Are you saying that the Republicans will accede to question time out of fear of being called ideologically inconsistent by the mainstream (non-Fox) media? When has this fear ever constrained them in the past?

Rob Salmond said...

Possibly not "out of fear of being called ideologically inconsistent," rather "out of fear of being called cowardly and churlish." Methinks the Culture of Honor has something to say on that one.

Seth said...

I suppose the coming months will prove one of us right. But the GOP was willing to incur reputational costs for the government shutdown, impeachment, Gore v. Bush, etc. This seems like small potatoes in comparison.