The Health Care Summit Was Fine. Question Time Would Be Better.

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 10:22 AM EST

The health care summit hosted by President Barack Obama on Thursday predictably did not yield any bipartisan breakthrough. But as I explained in my PoliticsDaily.com column, it was quite valuable:

It clarified the situation. Though much of the conversation consisted of participants pushing pre-existing talking points, the debate made the obvious really obvious: Obama and his Republican foes are miles apart in ideological and policy terms. As the hours went by, Obama engaged in wonky exchanges with the Rs—sometime calling them out on key factual disputes, such as whether the Congressional Budget Office said his overhaul would lead to higher premiums. (Obama got the better of that argument.) But all this back and forth kept illustrating the basic divide. The Republicans do not believe it is Washington's mission to take major action to challenge the insurance industry and extend coverage to most of the nation's citizens without health insurance. Instead, they want to move, as they repeatedly said, "step by step." But the Democrats believe that the only way to cure the health system of its ills is to adopt comprehensive change.

This gabfest highlighted the irreconcilable differences. The Rs don't think the Ds and government can handle such a big and expensive job. The Ds don't think the Rs and the insurance industry can remedy the problems with small measures. And the meaning of all this unavoidable: if the president and the congressional Democrats want to pass any version of comprehensive health care reform, they will have to do it by themselves, using whatever legitimate legislative procedures are available. The summit clarified the situation.

The health care summit also showed the value of direct engagement between the president and the opposition—and the need for establishing the practice of Question Time. After Obama and House GOPers last month held a gripping Q&A at a Republican retreat, a cross-partisan group of bloggers, techies, and political consultants (myself included) initiated the Demand Question Time campaign, calling on Obama and the Republicans to hold such public and televised sessions on a regular basis. Neither the White House nor the House Republican leaders have yet signed on. But the health care summit has been cited by political observers as a sequel to that earlier face-off.

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The summit, though it indeed supports the case for Question Time, was a bit different than what institutionalized Question Time might look like. The health care meeting was long, clocking in at seven hours. And the need to move ploddingly through a long list of Republican and Democratic speakers—many of whom were there to present talking points and help their respective party position itself for the health care endgame—made the event seem stilted at times. There were some rather significant policy-related exchanges. Yet this single-issue event lacked the dynamism of the shorter and less formal session at the Republican retreat. And because of its length, the summit will likely not be watched in its entirety by as many people as the earlier Q&A. (MSNBC cut away in the afternoon to show an Olympics hockey game, and Fox News and CNN often interrupted the proceedings to air the analysis of their commentators.)

This summit happened because the president, believing it would be of political use, called for the meeting. The Republicans obviously figured it would be politically beneficial to accept his invitation (or to not reject the invitation.) But Question Time should not depend on a president's political calculation. It should occur on a regular basis. How often? Once a month? Every other month? The exact frequency is not the most important matter. (On Friday morning, I appeared on CNN with Grover Norquist, one of the many conservative proponents of Question Time, and he enthusiastically suggested weekly sessions. That might be too much of a good thing for everyone—including the public.) Regular Question Time should be not too long, perhaps 90 minutes or so. It generally would cover a range of topics, unless the questioners decide to drill down in one area. It should include follow-up questions and plenty of back-and-forth.

The Demand Question Time effort has been picking up prominent endorsers on the left and right. There's a petition to sign. It has its own online discussion.

The health care summit demonstrated that the national debate is enhanced when the president and his opponents discuss face to face—in full public view—the big and contentious issues of the day. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Florida Democrat running for Senate, used the occasion to endorse the Question Time campaign. I believe he's the first congressional official to do so. In a guest editorial for Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com, Meek wrote,

Too often, we think of politics in a top-down, hierarchical sense instead of treating it as a two-way street. Holding regular, publicly-televised and webcasted conversations between the President and the people's representatives has the potential to combat hyper-partisanship and political stagnation....

Even the White House has dismissed the idea of instituting Question Time, claiming it is "going to be hard to recreate the spontaneity that happened." However, is “spontaneity” really the end goal? Or is it something much greater, a deepening of our democracy and renewal of our basic governing process?

Politicians today are heavily scripted and risk-adverse. Too many are unwilling to reach across the aisle and forge a bipartisan consensus for the good of the country. Question Time would have a healthy effect on me as an elected leader by providing a regular opportunity to hear views that differ from my own.

I understand that Question Time is no panacea to our country's challenges. There is no magic wand that will suddenly break our political impasse. I do think, however, that it’s worth a shot.

With that first Q&A in Baltimore and with this week's summit, the president and the Republicans have moved in the direction of Question Time. And on each occasion, they have demonstrated why they should go all the way.

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