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Democratic Question Time Pre-Planned, Self-Censored

Maybe that bipartisan coalition pushing for regular “Question Time” for the President should rethink their idea. A give-and-take of this type doesn’t really work unless there’s buy-in from both sides. And Senate Democrats weren’t really willing to challenge the President today at any level. The exchange was nonetheless mildly interesting, but there was no chance of an actual debate breaking out. It reminded me of a Jay Leno interview with a starlet, where he asks a leading, pre-planned question designed to bring up a canned response. “Hey, so I heard you were traveling in Spain last summer….”

It also didn’t help that practically every member of the Senate Democrats who spoke – Evan Bayh, Arlen Specter, Blanche Lincoln, Barbara Boxer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet – are up for re-election in 2010, and in many cases are in difficult races.

Here are what I found to be some of the more interesting responses:

• Responding to Sen. Michael Bennet, who talked about the broken nature of Washington, Obama again edged toward a condemnation of the filibuster rules in the Senate. “The challenge I gave to GOP was, if you want to govern , you can’t just say no,” Obama said. He cited instances where Republicans forced cloture votes on nominees or legislation, and after cloture passes, the matter would get 90 or 95 votes. “That’s trying to gum up the works instead of getting things done. Filibuster only works in the spirit of compromise instead of shutting things down. If you’re shutting things down, it’s not going to work.”

I have no idea what “the spirit of compromise” means when it comes to the filibuster. Republicans are the opposition party. It’s both in their interest and their job description to oppose. They disagree with the Democratic agenda, and if they have options at their disposal to stall it or stop it, they’re simply going to use them. The only real options for Democrats are to make that obstruction politically painful, or change the rules to allow for smoothly functioning governance.

• Obama took responsibility for the lack of transparency in the health care debate. “At end of the process, in trying to get it done quickly, some of that transparency got lost and I think we paid a price for it … We’ve got to constantly make our case, and not play an insider’s game, play an outsider’s game.” This was as much the function of a dragged-out process than a lack of transparency; there always have been backroom deals, there always will be. And they exact a political price. Getting this done in a period of time that cannot be measured in years would have helped.

• There was a healthy amount of media bashing at the session. Obama told members to “Turn off CNN, Fox, MSNBC, blogs, and talk to folks out there instead of being in this echo chamber, where the topic is constantly politics.” Harry Reid and Blanche Lincoln said they followed that pretty well. And Evan Bayh again bashed “left-wing blogs” for criticizing the budget freeze idea. I guess left-wing blogs include Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman, along with Bayh’s own colleagues like Sherrod Brown. Also, left-wing blogs must have made Evan Bayh vote to eliminate the estate tax and give hundreds of millions of dollars to super-rich trust fund kids. We’re all-powerful.

• It was real heartening to see Bayh, above, and Blanche Lincoln continually criticize the “extremes” of their own party. That’s certainly going to make folks turn out for them in November! Obama did at least make lemonade out of the lemons Lincoln handed him (this is a rough paraphrase):

Why would we expect a different outcome pursuing the exact same policies that got us here in the first place … Michael Bennet said it well, people have been in this mess for 10 years. No wage increase, no net job increases. They’re just treading water. If our response ends up being, because we don’t want to stir things up, we’re going to do the same thing as before, then I don’t know what differentiates us from the other guys. And I don’t know why people would want Democrats in Washington fighting for them.

If only Democrats would internalize this concept. Obama even went so far as to say that yes, the banks will “squawk” at financial reform, and say that they aren’t lending because of it. But they’re not lending now! So Democrats shouldn’t cower in the face of special interest whining.

• Patrick Leahy didn’t really ask a question, but provided an opportunity for Obama to talk about Senate holds on judicial nominees and federal appointees, which the President took. And it was a good answer. He said that “nobody has a specific objection” to a lot of his appointees, but they get obstructed anyway, often because of a different piece of policy that’s only tangentially related. He noted that his first federal judicial nominee, David Hamilton, who was supported by both a Republican and Democratic Senator in his home state of Indiana, took 6-7 months to confirm.

We have to start highlighting how this is not how we should be doing business. I plan to reach out to Mitch McConnell, and say look, if the government is going to work, I cannot have the Administrator of GSA obstructed, someone who runs the administration of the whole federal government … even though I nominated somebody well-qualified several months ago, and nobody can tell me anything particularly wrong with her, she’s not in place. That has to end … Let’s have a fight about real stuff. Don’t hold this woman hostage.

• Responding to Evan Bayh’s deficit peacockery, Obama fell for some of it, saying that, even though “The last time this budget was balanced was under a Democratic president who made some pretty tough decisions,” Democrats are still haunted by the “tax and spend” label. But he added that Republicans handed him “a ticking time bomb,” which exploded, and now Democrats have to clean up the mess. It was ever thus.

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David Dayen

David Dayen