Question authority

Posted: Jul 07, 2003 12:00 AM

LONDON -- It is all well and good for the prime minister of the United Kingdom to spend precious hours preparing to do battle at Question Time in the House of Commons, as he is the head of government of a little country.

The president of the United States, however, is the leader of the free world and does not have the time to spare.

That's how the argument goes, anyway. I should know -- I've used it. But in an age when voters are cynical and apathetic, engaging political debate could provide a tonic. Face-to-face exchanges, in lieu of 30-second TV spots, would force politicians to flesh out policy differences instead of pitching a simple slogan. Why not a U.S. version of Question Time?

The Prime Minister's Question Time evolved, in part, because British government is not dependent on a separation of powers. (Unlike the United States, where the executive and legislative branches are separate, members of Parliament serve in the prime minister's Cabinet, hence his obligation to address their questions.) Still, there is nothing to stop a U.S. president from addressing a rival branch of government.

Except, maybe, training. One big obstacle here, noted Steven F. Hayward, author of "Churchill on Leadership," is that in America, "We don't generate politicians who are as skilled at give and take as the British are." This is especially true of President Bush, who has succeeded wildly because he's a skillful behind-the-scenes player, not because he's a great debater.

The United Kingdom's Question Time does put the prime minister in the glare of the public spotlight. But then, the P.M. is always in the spotlight. At least during Question Time, he gets to share the heat with his opposition. When the opposition is solid, the executive benefits. (British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, has been foiled in his desire to convert the British pound to the euro -- a contentious issue that most Britons oppose.) When the opposition isn't solid, the P.M. is the winner. (Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith hasn't made big gains in popularity with his cheap shots at Blair on the war in Iraq.)

Blair is suffering a crisis of confidence among British voters, many of whom opposed the war. Blair, however, has effectively used Question Time to demonstrate his abilities as a leader by clearly not ducking responsibility for that unpopular decision. In comparison, Blair's critics look like weasels.

Sort of like Democrats who voted for the Bush policy on Iraq, only to snipe at Bush as U.S. forces faced inevitable problems.

A U.S. president wouldn't have to adhere to the British model, where the prime minister confronts members of Parliament most Wednesdays when the House of Commons is in session. Neither Bush -- nor any other American president -- would have the time to prep for a 30-minute Q&A on a near-weekly basis. But a U.S. president could go before Congress from time to time to answer questions when he or she is trying to push through dicey legislation. Bush, for example, could have discussed the

prescription drug plan or taken on the mealy-mouthed Democrats about what should happen in Iraq.

Americans, some say, may not react well to the rowdiness of a Question Time. "There's no decorum" in the U.K.'s Question Time, noted Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. It would be "offensive" to see members of Congress jeer at an American president as members of Parliament jeer at Blair.

Well, Stern has a point. It's more accepted in this country for opponents to trash a president behind his back. Confronting a president on substantive disagreement, then giving the president the opportunity to respond, well, in America, that's just not cricket.