Do Ask and Make Them Tell

I used to think it was rude to shut down politicians. I’ve changed my mind. Now I believe it’s our best chance at reviving American democracy. It may be the only way to get our questions answered.

Contemporary politics is suffering from a dearth of public servants. What we too often get these days are the toadies of private interest groups. The latter pay plenty to airbrush their mouthpieces and train them to stay on message like mimicking parrots. Listening to modern politicians is often like being trapped in a room with a five-year-old piano student has just learned “Chopsticks;” after a while the tedium of repeated notes makes you crazy. It doesn’t seem to matter what the real issues are these days, oily pols just slide out from under them and spout well-rehearsed sound bites.

Somebody needs to remind politicians that they have a duty to answer the question that was asked, not the one they practiced in the seminar room. For heaven’s sake, if I ask one of my students to answer a question about the Civil War and she writes an essay about Vietnam, she fails. So let’s hold politicians to that standard. We must do so, because most journalists will not. To put a point on it, they too have been bought and sold by special interest groups that have wined them, dined them, and convinced them that the only way to be a “player” is to be embedded. In “press conferences” these days even NPR lobs more softballs than you’ll see on a summer Sunday in the park.

There are encouraging signs that disgruntled Americans are taking matters into their own hands. In her recent swing through Iowa, Michele Bachman insisted she only wanted to talk about the economy and declined to take questions. Not good enough for seventeen-year-old Gabe Aderhold, who wanted to ask Bachman about the suicide of gay teens in her own Minneapolis suburb. When she ignored him, he shouted out, “I am a second-class citizen because of you, Michele.” Bachman was forced to backpedal--and what else could one who thinks you can “cure” gays by “praying” do but backpedal?--by jumping into her golf cart and speeding away. Rick Perry didn’t fare any better in New Hampshire. When asked by a child how old he thought the earth was. “You know, I don’t have any idea,” said Perry as he tried to move on, but his answers weren’t much better on Social Security, unemployment, or global warming. I live in Massachusetts, where making fun of New Hampshire is an official sport, but let me offer a bold prediction: Rick Perry won’t fare well in the New Hampshire primary. Folks up that way know horseshit when they smell it, and Perry left so many deposits that Granite Staters will remember in February.

While we’re on the subject of all shine, no substance, let’s give the Cowardly Lion Award to Scott Brown. In an “appearance” in Western Massachusetts last week that was shorter than the senator’s list of accomplishments, Brown came, he waved, and he ran away the moment questions were asked. That’s right, a man who thinks he deserves to be a U.S. Senator didn’t take a single question. Apparently he can’t even hit a lobbed softball or two. Brown can win reelection without Western Massachusetts and that’s his only hope; he didn’t have that many fans here before he came, and he exited with even fewer. Let’s get folks in Eastern Massachusetts to force Brown to talk about the Tea Party baggage he hauls in the back of his famed pickup truck.

To this emerging trend I say, good on you Paul and Paula Plebian. Keep on asking those questions and if the pols don’t answer them to your satisfaction, keep on asking until they go away. Let’s ask Mitt Romney why a guy who doesn’t think the rich should pay higher taxes is tearing down his 3,000 square foot oceanfront home in La Jolla, California, to put up an 11,000 square foot replacement mansion. While we’re at it, let’s ask him what a guy who already has homes on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire; a townhouse in Boston; and a 9,500 square foot home at a ski resort in Utah actually knows about the middle class.

Let’s ask all Republicans why they won’t allow rich people to pay another nickel in taxes, but they do support repealing the current 4.2 percent Social Security payroll tax and letting it rise back to 6.2 percent, its level before President Bush temporarily lowered it. That’s a tax hike that impacts only incomes of under $106,000. (For the record, I support raising it. I also support removing the $106k cap.)

By all means become an equal opportunity question asker. Ask Barack Obama why he caved in on extending tax breaks to the rich when he promised that he wouldn’t. Ask him why we’re still in Iraq when we were supposed to be out by last spring. Make him tell you why a dime of federal money goes to Pakistan and why we should care about Afghanistan. Ask him when the hell he’s going to put forth a health reform package that’s worthy of the name.

Ask those questions, folks, and if the pols won’t answer them, shout ‘em down. If they don’t care what we want to know, why should we care what they think about anything else?

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