By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Two words: Question time.
Really, I could stop right there; I’m sure you can picture the spectacle as well as I can. But for those who came in late, “Question Time” is a
British blood sport feature of the British parliamentary tradition. Here’s how Parliament’s web site describes it:
Question Time is an opportunity for MPs and Members of the House of Lords to question government ministers about matters for which they are responsible. These questions are asked at the start of business in both chambers and are known as ‘oral questions’.
One such government minister is the Prime Minister:
Prime Minister’s Question Time
The Prime Minister answers questions from MPs in the Commons every sitting Wednesday from 12pm to 12.30pm.
The session normally starts with a routine question from an MP about the Prime Minister’s engagements. This is known as an ‘open question’ and means that the MP can then ask a supplementary question on any subject.
Following the answer, the MP then raises a particular issue, often one of current political significance. The Leader of the Opposition then follows up on this or another topic, being permitted to ask a total of six questions. The Leader of the Opposition is the only MP who is allowed to come back with further questions.
Most MPs will table the same question about engagements and if they do, only their names will appear on the question book. After the first engagements question has been asked, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled, supplementary question.
However, the Prime Minister will be extensively briefed by government departments in anticipation of likely subjects they could be asked about.
That’s a little dry, so let me present Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in action:
What a shark! And on a lighter note, from the Australian Parliament, Julia Gillard:
Now, do we have elected representatives capable of playing in Thatcher and Gillard’s league? I think we do. Here’s Elizabeth Warren — who rather specializes in brutal questioning — working out on Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf:
And here’s Bernie Sanders questioning Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price:
Now, we don’t have a parliamentary system — maybe — and the British procedures seem a little elaborate to me. Then again, the picture of question time with President Trump every Wednesday for half an hour starting at noon is a very attractive one considered as a spectacle alone. However, I think it’s also a solid proposal on grounds of public policy as well. Trump’s opposition makes much of his inconsistencies, and his at best flexible attitude toward the factual. This has led to considerable confusion about what Trump really means, a confusion well expressed by, amazingly enough, Peter Thiel:
[THIEL:] But I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media always has taken Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.
For “the media,” read “the political class,” especially the establishment factions thereof, and especially the liberal establishment factions thereof.
[THIEL:] I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’
Now, I can file most of what Trump says under the heading of commercial puffery (which doesn’t imply I endorse the product). That’s a sensible and appropriate style of discourse for a public figure who is or has been in the real estate, entertainment, casino, and personal branding businesses. The problem is one of scale: Government is of a completely different scale than business — which is why government should not be run like a business — and the risks are inordinately higher. Puffery in government leads to uncertainty, and Mr. Market hates uncertainty. Yes, liberals’ favorite president after Obama, Reagan, did say “We begin bombing in five minutes” but he didn’t say the equivalent on every topic every five minutes! Or Tweet it…
So, I think Question Time would provide an excellent opportunity to filter out the commercial puffery from Trump’s pronouncements, which would be good for the country. And as an former debater, as is Yves, I think there is no better way to do that than cross-examination by a skilled opposition (like Warren or Sanders). Question time would provide this.
Would Trump do it? I think if it were up to him, he would. First, I think Trump would believe he would win the encounters; and he is, after all, a master persuader. Second, if the Democrats challenged him to do it, he’d have to take them up on it, or appear weak. Third, during the campaign, Trump, at his rallies, was in essence running A/B testing on tens of thousands of people in real time, and adjusting his pitch accordingly (or his data team down in San Antonio was); Question Time would allow him to keep working at that scale and at that pace, in a way that speeches, press conferences, and the Twitter do not. Fourth, it would be fun. Like a cage match….
So that is my own modest proposal for a change to the Constitutional Order: Question Time. How about it?
 Background on the 2005 WorkChoices program implemented by John Howard’s Liberal government, mocked by Gillard.
 Is Trump a liar or a bullshit artist, in Harry Frankfurt’s famed distinction? Summarizing: “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.” If the former, the country is indeed lucky! My answer is both; the outer man is a bullshit artist, but the inner man is a liar (and who among us….). I believe that because Trump has spoken too many unseasonable truths — for example, that the Iraq War was a debacle — for me to believe that he doesn’t care about the truth, or can’t recognize it when he sees it.
 The White House press corps is said to have once performed that function.
 And they could always use the old empty chair trick.