Question Time for the USA
Christopher Hitchens draws attention to a proposal by John McCain that received scant attention when announced last week:
“I will ask Congress,” said the presumptive Republican nominee, “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.”
Hitchens is enthusiastic and recounts the history of such proposals in the past, lamenting that executive branch caution or arrogance always stopped the idea from getting too far. He fails to note, however, the obvious objection: The United States does not have a parliamentary system but rather, as every schoolboy knows, a system of separation of powers.
It is true, I suppose, that something like Question Time could be established as part of the process of checks and balances. But the rationale for it in the UK and Canada is that the Prime Minister is, in theory at least, merely the designated representative of the majority in the Commons and is therefore accountable to them. By contrast, the American president is separately elected by the people (via the device of the Electoral College) and answers only to them.
As a practical matter, it wouldn’t function here for another reason: We don’t have the equivalent of the Oxbridge System. Every prime minister was educated via a method that strongly emphasized debating skills and, came up through the ranks of the parliamentary machinery and demonstrated that they were particularly good at that sort of give-and-take. That’s not the case here, as the current occupant of the White House demonstrates on a regular basis.
McCain would, I think, hold his own nicely at Question Time. Obama, too, has the intellectual skill set, although he’s not yet as adept at going on the offense. But most American presidents, including some pretty good ones, simply weren’t good at thinking on their feet and issuing sardonic one liners.