Question Time: Bring Back The Debate!

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Two podiums facing each other i

Healthy, public discourse: Where has it gone? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Two podiums facing each other

Healthy, public discourse: Where has it gone?


Debate may foster discussion, but what other facets are being overlooked? Tom Kavanagh and Kevin Williamson explain.

Katrina vanden Heuvel has been the editor of The Nation since 1995 and publisher since 2005. She is the co-editor of Taking Back America — And Taking Down The Radical Right and, more recently, editor of The Dictionary of Republicanisms.

"We live in a world that increasingly demands more dialogue than monologue." Those are words from the founding manifesto crafted and issued earlier this week by a diverse group of bloggers, commentators, techies and politicos, calling for more question sessions with the president and the opposition party. I am one of those, along with Grover Norquist, who signed on. Here's why: These are times when unfiltered, unfettered public debate — rigorous, substantive, candid and civil — are rare and hard to find. I believe that "Demand Question Time" will help us to nurture a smart and vibrant democracy.

Last week we witnessed a rare event — President Obama met with GOP House members, and their debate was as riveting as the best reality show. It made us all remember that political exchange can be compelling, even entertaining! This project will enhance civic engagement — the winners will be the American people. At a moment when so many lament our hyperpolarized politics, here's something to celebrate: a cross-partisan coalition of new/old media and political folks who may not agree on everything, but who do agree that we can do better when it comes to encouraging unfettered and unmoderated discussions and debates.

That's why, along with my colleague Grover Norquist, I'm hoping "Question Time" could become the Americana equivalent of the British version of "question time" in their Parliament. I am a believer that more open dialogue can only enhance our democracy.

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform. He is a member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union.

Katrina, one reason politics in the United States is so uninspiring and uninteresting is that it consists of long speeches by party leaders. Speeches allow one to go on and on at length, unchallenged, possibly inventing facts and certainly presenting only one side of the argument. In a debate, both sides make their case in real time. Debates are better than speeches; debates are competition. Speeches are monopolies. Debates are Macy's and Gimbels, roughing it up; speeches are the Department of Motor Vehicles. Notice that dictators like long speeches — there is no other side; there's no alternative view allowed. Debates are alive: Arguments are tested and honed. Debates, like the question time the British have in Parliament, promote politicians like Winston Churchill. Speeches get you politicians like George W. Bush and Barack Obama — and there are no teleprompters in the debates. Coaches and speechwriters — that works for politicians giving a public speech, but they do very little to prop up the incompetent in a debate.

This has happened in America: In the 1960s, Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan debated the Vietnam War. No one who saw that debate then, or on tape since, would have been surprised in later decades by Reagan's political abilities. He wasn't just a speech reader; he was an original thinker and a debater. This is why Katrina and I and many others are calling on President Obama and the Republican leaders in Congress to organize a regularly scheduled question time where the American people can watch our political leaders engage in debate, ask each other questions, and let us know what they're thinking and where they hope to take America.



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