America Needs A Nancy Pelosi-John Boehner Debate Like It Needs A Gaping Head Wound

By all means, what the voters need right now is some sort of superfluous television event that will allow the media to indulge themselves in an orgiastic display of their worst instincts.

Jonathan Alter, writing in Newsweek, has an idea that will change everything!

Did you know that there is a huge election in America this year? And that Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses, respectively, in the House?

Okay, good! Knowing these things, wouldn't you like to see Pelosi and Boehner debate each other on the teevee -- for some reason? You should, because this would be "a huge change in American politics," as Alter puts it. (Because there would be another debate on the teevee!)

When another branch of government requiring a vote of the people--the presidency--was at stake, the country saw the candidates up close in a series of debates. Why should the leadership of Congress be any different? Between now and November, we need debates between the parties' candidates for speaker of the House. The voters deserve no less.

But, on the other hand, maybe we could create a legislative body of some kind? Say, a "House" where "representatives" can debate each other, every goddamned day?

Don't members of Congress debate all the time on the floor? Not really. Instead they give short speeches with no interaction, no questions, and almost no one listening. Pelosi-Boehner debates, by contrast, would become special cable (and even possibly network) events. Because each is despised by the other party, these debates would be major partisan moments in the best sense--a chance to test their contrasting ideas for governing unfiltered.

Riiiight, so, the alternative is to add "questions" and "listening" to a special televised edition of "short speeches with no interaction," for the purpose of creating one of those "special cable" -- possibly network! -- events, which are always the balm for what ails the country. And the selling point is that the two figures in the debate come to the party being "despised." From there a great clarity will come over the electorate thanks to the televised grandstanding of politicians for whom most Americans will not have the opportunity to cast a vote.

Alter titles this piece "A Modest Proposal: the Pelosi-Boehner Speaker Debates," so it's possible that he's invoking Jonathan Swift in order to signal that this piece is actually a high-concept critique of the way cable news strives, relentlessly, to turn every political event into a debased, partisan shit-show. In that case, I'm being a big party-pooper by cracking the code and telling everyone, "NO! DO NOT REALLY EAT THE BABIES, NATION OF STARVING, UNEMPLOYED PEOPLE!" It's a distinct possibility, because the piece contains this paragraph:

Speaker debates would do little or nothing to change the minds of Democrats and Republicans; the same is true of the presidential versions. But the election, while dependent in part on party turnout, will also hinge on the reaction of independent voters, who make up a third or more of the electorate. Do they think President Obama and the Democrats are passing too much legislation? Are they ready to go back to Republican priorities in Congress? These are the most central political questions of our time, and speaker debates would help the voters answer them.

See, if this is satire, I can just sit back and laugh at the sly way these words, arranged in this manner, form sentences that mimic cognitive thought. If I had to take this as a sincere idea, I'd be obligated to point out some things. For instance: "Do they think President Obama and the Democrats are passing too much legislation" is not a "central political question of our time," any more than "Are the Los Angeles Lakers playing too much basketball" is. I'd also have to point out that if you want to find out if independent voters are ready to "go back to Republican priorities," you would have to GO AND ASK THE INDEPENDENT VOTERS. (Spoiler alert: Pelosi's answer will be, "No," and Boehner's answer will be "Yes.")

You'll hear the argument that the House, unlike the presidency, is made up of 435 members, not one, and that the speakership is determined by the members, not the voters.

No you won't, because this is not an argument, it is a fact. You will hear the argument that it will grow brighter outside as the sun rises in the East -- BUT DON'T BE FOOLED!

But the truth is that we live in a time of great party discipline.

Which explains why Democrats have had no problem, at all, getting unemployment benefits passed, at a time when voters tell pollsters, over and over again, that unemployment is their top issue!

If the Republicans take control, Boehner will be speaker, and his agenda, like Pelosi's now, will make it through the House.

And it will get filibustered to death, in the Senate.

Even when House legislation is watered down by the Senate (or vetoed by the president) it carries great weight in the American system.

Whatever that means! "Great weight in the American system" and $4.99 will get you egg rolls.

Eventually, Alter gets around to revealing the real intent behind this idea:

In TV terms, neither Pelosi nor Boehner is truly ready for prime time, which would make the events fresher and less predictable. Analysts wouldn't be able to resist scoring the contests partly in personal terms--Pelosi's forced smile, Boehner's unusual tan--but because the midterms aren't a popularity contest between them, their governing philosophies would have a better chance of staying front and center.

See, if you get Pelosi and Boehner on television for a Presidential-style debate, the media will have a chance to pull out their dial ratings and focus groups and after-action snap polls and panels of experts, assessing things like "Who wore it best," and "Who had the good zinger" -- all the while studiously avoiding making the sort of coherent, substantive judgments of the the two competing governing philosophies and the actual merits of the policies on offer, which would be useful to actual humans. By all means, what the voters need right now is some sort of superfluous television event that will allow the media to indulge themselves in an orgiastic display of their worst instincts.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

Popular in the Community