On Thursday's episode of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviewed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. As my title suggests, the interview was filled with bad questions and bad answers.
Jon Stewart was trying to ask about systemic corruption in government, but he frequently lacked specificity in his questions or directed them at the wrong point. If you want to discuss the systemic corruption in Congress, you need to build up your case (and there is certainly one to be made) and then end with a discussion of whether the problems are systemic or not. His examples were often underdeveloped and unstructured and, at times, random.
Because of his failure to articulate sharp questions, Pelosi often evades or challenges them, and her answers and delivery felt stilted to me.
The whole interview is about 25/26 minutes and has three parts. I transcribed about half of it below.
At the end of the second part (not transcribed), they seem to be getting frustrated with each other. Stewart is talking about how the Democrats take money from the same corporations and special interests as Republicans, and Pelosi highlights the contrasting voting records of the parties (She says, "You look at the votes" about four times). Stewart's complaint is justified, and so is Pelosi's response to an extent. Stewart's questions fail because he does not provide specific examples which Pelosi would be forced to address. He could have easily, for instance, highlighted the time when 70 Democrats voted for a bill almost entirely written by Citigroup. But when he talks about legislation, he deals in the abstract. He also has a tendency to talk to her about failings of or corruption in the executive branch rather than Congress.
Moreover, when they discuss the role of money in politics (not described), he only looks at this in terms of a quid pro quo. And because of that, Pelosi can push back against the accusation. However, the effect of money in politics is far more extensive and insidious than just that. When you are constantly speaking with the donor class, the only concerns you are hearing (or at least the main ones you are hearing) are those of the donor class. You will end up placing more weight on the opinions of the top 1% (or top 1% of the 1%), perhaps even falsely conflating their views with those of the general public. But, as Stewart himself is rich, the question of this ideological and social influence does not come to him.
Anyway, here's the first half of the interview, with commentary:
STEWART: You know, every time I see congresspeople on television, the questions that always get asked are about the politics—how’s it going to affect the politics, who’s going to run in 2016, and all that. Let me ask you, in terms of governance, is it surprising that there isn’t as much talk and thought to the mechanics of governance as there is to the politics and conflict?The wording of that question was awkward. Let me offer a more precise version (based on how I read it): Why does so much media coverage focus on horse race politics rather than the substance and process of policymaking?
Or, to make it even shorter: Why does so much media coverage focus on politics at the expense of policy?
PELOSI: Well, the whole idea is really about the substance.Just as his question was awkwardly worded, so, too, is her answer. As I see it, she is trying to say that you cannot so easily divorce politics and policy because politics is about competing policy visions.
PELOSI: And the vision that you have and how you—what you know about it—how you plan to execute it and how you can attract people to it. And right now, there is a big difference. There’s been a traditional difference between Democrats and Republicans. Right now, though, we have a school of thought in the Republican caucus that is anti-government, anti-science, anti-Obama. They have a trifecta that enables them to vote against everything. As you saw last—the other night, at the State of the Union, they couldn’t applaud everything. You know, “hard-working families don’t”—No response.
We also need to stop saying that Republicans are "anti-government." That's just untrue. They are against the use of government for the benefit of the general welfare. They are against the use of government in ways that challenge the embedded hierarchies in social institutions like the corporation (employer over employees), the family (strict father over wife and children), the church, etc. In other words, the question is rarely Government? but instead Government for whom?
Describing them as "anti-government" is intellectually lazy because the government has so many varied functions, and one can oppose some and support others simultaneously. It also perversely feeds into their rhetoric of being champions of "freedom" (perversely interpreted).
STEWART: They also have, from what I’ve heard, very sensitive hands. [Pelosi laughs] If they were to clap, it would cause a tremendous amount of pain. [Pelosi laughs]A decent enough joke.
STEWART: The more to do with that. But it does put the onus in some respects, though then, on the Democrats to prove their case maybe a little more forcefully—His word, of course, was clusterf*ck.
STEWART: About the case for government. So how do you feel that that’s going? Because, on our end, it looks like it’s a bit chaotic.
PELOSI: It looks that way.
STEWART: I have another word that I use for that, but it ends in something terrible. So I don’t—
STEWART: So why do we have so much trouble executing these plans with any kind of efficiency?
His first question was "Shouldn't Democrats try extra hard to show the effectiveness of government in promoting the general welfare?"
His second question was "Why is the government so inefficient at implementing such large programs?"
At least, that's how I interpret the latter. "These plans" and "we" are both vague.
The questions are completely different but end up lumped together. They are also rather macro-level questions that seem out-of-place so early in the interview. He should highlight a few examples before zooming out like that--doing so is just better argumentation.
PELOSI: If you are talking about people who have no agenda, who Nothing is our agenda and Never is our time table, it is very hard to negotiate with them.Saying that they have "no agenda" is just not true. They have an agenda, and it is a bad one. They passed the Ryan budget multiple times. That lays out what their agenda is.
PELOSI: And we are responsible. So call us responsible.In other words, Democrats are the Republicans' enablers. To quote Corey Robin, "Once upon a time Republicans were tax collectors for the welfare state. Now Democrats are the austerians of reactionary Keynesianism."
PELOSI: They know we are going to vote not to shut down the government.
PELOSI: They know that we are going to vote for the budget no matter how [pause] unpleasant it is.
PELOSI: The choice we have is to be irresponsible—
PELOSI: And follow their path. Or to be fear-mongers and explain it to the public is very bad news.
This discussion reminds me of a good point made in an article in The Economist last fall during the shutdown:
"...And here, Mr Obama's tendency to play the reasonable moderate sometimes becomes a problem. It's a deep-seated element of Mr Obama's character to step back from disputes, to take things to a meta level, to describe the arguments on both sides and then present his own solution as a compromise, or simply to plead for reasoned debate and a sense of common purpose. There are times when this approach does no one any good.
When Mr Obama stops speaking as a partisan advocate of ambitious liberal goals, adopts his mature school-principal voice, and demands simply that political players adhere to reasonable norms of democratic governance, Republicans are left with nothing to oppose except the reasonable norms of democratic governance. At the moment, Republicans need to be reminded that Democrats do not want the government to reopen and the interest on our debt to be paid. They want the government to reopen, double its infrastructure spending and guarantee pre-school from age three to poor Americans; they want to pay the interest on our debt, then borrow more to run larger deficits right now and for the next couple of years, and lock in higher taxes five to ten years down the road to handle the long-term deficit problem. A fight between Democrats and Republicans over whether or not those are good ideas is a fight America can survive and even thrive with. A fight over whether or not to default on our debt isn't."
I would add to that the problem of not just a failure to articulate goals but a lowering of goals as well.
STEWART: But I mean aside from that aspect of it, I meant more in terms of, okay, “We are going to set up a health care website that is an exchange. People are going to come to it—The implementation process was the responsibility of the Executive Branch. Pelosi wasn't choosing the contractor.
STEWART: Why is it so hard to get a company to execute that competently?
PELOSI: I don’t know. And I—as one very [Jon Stewart interrupts laughing.] That’s my question.
Moreover, he makes the assumption that a private company should even have been the one to execute the operation. Why not develop the website in-house? That question, hinting at the risks and ill effects of privatization, does not seem to even enter his mind.
STEWART: Well, [funny voice] let me get the House Minority Leader, and I can ask her. Hold on. [audience laughter] What do you mean you don’t know? How do you not know?He again shows ignorance. He could have asked questions about the design of the bill, i.e., whether these problems stem from the bill's reliance on for-profit health insurance. There are many possible penetrating questions on that issue that he could have asked.
PELOSI: Well, it’s not my responsibility. But I will say this. We worked very hard—
PELOSI: To honor our responsibility to pass a bill that honored the values of our Founders—life, a healthier life; liberty; pursuit of your happiness—I find the constant invocation of the Founders to be vapid.
PELOSI: Yeah, if you want to be a writer, if you want to be a comedian, if you want to be a camera person, if you want to start a business.
STEWART: That’s theoretical. I’m talking about--Stewart's questions are unfocused, and as I noted earlier, he avoids asking more penetrating questions about privatization and neoliberal policy paradigms. For instance, he could have asked about whether a single payer (or other system) would have been more efficient and avoided the problems that stem from creating a rube goldberg device. But instead, he seems to feed into Republican critiques of "regulation."
PELOSI: They’re actual—
PELOSI: So, for us, this vision that we have, this actual legislation that makes life better for people, that they would have, that there would be a website that didn’t work is so appalling, so shameful—
PELOSI: That I share the concern that the public has. But it is getting better.
STEWART: I understand that. But to back that up, if you have two schools of thought, one that government has a role in our lives to improve things and we can make a difference in people’s lives, given that, and the group that makes that argument, when they execute that plan—
PELOSI: It should work. Exactly. Again—
STEWART: Are there things in the procurement process? Have the regulation become so onerous that government can no longer be agile enough to tackle these kinds of programs?
PELOSI: Well, let me say that one of the things is the procurement process. But everybody knew that. So there was no excuse for this website not to work.
PELOSI: No excuse. And as those who worked the hardest to make sure we had health care, but it will work. The policy is solid.
STEWART: I know. But there’s clearly something systemic that is going on that is making the VA unable to deal with their backlog, to make us unable to deal--How can you cite the VA backlog without addressing the question of the current state of perpetual war?
STEWART: To give an example, Obama’s IT guy—a small company, but clearly a brilliant guy, he arranged all of Obama’s Internet campaign stuff, where you would be in the bathtub, and he would find you and you’d get an email. It would bubble out of the water, “Hey, have you thought about giving us money?” And you couldn’t figure out how it happened.The question "Does the federal contracting process have a bias toward larger companies?" is a decent question. I'm just not sure whether it is something Pelosi would, in her position, have the knowledge to answer. To me, the question seems more appropriate for the executive branch. However, still, he doesn't get at the real problem, i.e., privatization, for which Congress clearly shares the blame.
PELOSI: Classified as those who bathe. Now you know what we do.
STEWART: That guy couldn’t figure out the process. He couldn’t figure out how to bid for that contract. You said it was a 300 page document, and it seems like it’s obscured like that purposefully so that the largest companies have an advantage because they have teams of lawyers.
PELOSI: Doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It should have been prepared for. There is no excuse.
PELOSI: All that is okay.
STEWART: Oh, no, I’m not presenting it as an excuse. I’m presenting it as a Do we have foundational problem? Is there a corruption in the system that needs to be addressed to give us the confidence that moving forward, that we can execute these programs better?That's a macro, abstract question. If he wants to ask about systemic problems, he should have structured the interview with discussions of a series of specific examples ending with a probing question about the systemic nature of the problem.
PELOSI: I don’t think there’s a corruption. I think there might be a risk aversion, with going with the known and not being entrepreneurial enough to question whether that is going to do the job. And I would say this, especially with regard to the backlog at the VA, horrible but being addressed. And the fact that the VA’s computers can’t talk to the Defense Department computers to get the information is stunning. But, in other words, do something about it.There is certainly a lot of aversion to change in the various federal bureaucracies. I highly recommend Edward Luce's Time to Start Thinking on this point. The GAO makes recommendations to the Pentagon all the time about how it could improve and centralize its tech systems. The Pentagon continues to ignore them.
But there is also, of course, corruption. Stewart isn't specific enough in his questioning to elucidate the difference.
STEWART: Okay, I was actually going to say that to you. [audience applause] But is it possible that the people in the system don’t have enough distance from it to see the way that people in congressional offices end up becoming lobbyists for these corporations and these corporations lobby to get all kinds of arcane things put into the legislation to make it harder for small businesses, can our Congress not see the corruption inherent in that?Sorry, Pelosi, but Congress has a big revolving door problem. There was a good New York Times article on this just the other day.
PELOSI: The revolving door is not so much Congress as the Executive Branch.
STEWART: Oh, all of them.
PELOSI: Sure. For example, on NSA, NSA—one of the people was hired there was from a company that and they got all these contracts and hired consultants from that company—Is this an oblique reference to Edward Snowden? If so, it is a very awkwardly worded one.
At Netroots Nation last year, Pelosi got booed for her comments on Snowden, but she was able to gain back some favor when speaking out against the privatization of intelligence work.
STEWART: But folks in your office have gone to work for Boeing and many other contractors.Does he actually have a specific name of a former Pelosi staffer who is now working for Boeing? If he did, he should have said, "Well, your former [blank]...." If not, he's just making things up. There are plenty of examples of revolving door corruption to use. Cite them.
PELOSI: I don’t know that. We—my—were usually working.
[Jon Stewart laughs]
PELOSI: For who? For who?
[notes that show will end but interview will continue]
STEWART: So what can we do, how do we address, there must be a way for government to earn back the trust of the people who want desperately to help believe and make that argument that it can be fixed?When he's speaking of the inability of Medicare to negotiate drug prices, he should have noted Obama's backroom deal with the pharmaceutical companies to leave this out of the Affordable Care Act. Such a question would have been far better targeted.
PELOSI: Well, I don’t think we should put all of our eggs in a website.
STEWART: Oh, I’m making a broader point.
STEWART: It’s not just about the website. It’s about the VA, the website, some of the fraud and abuse that are in a lot of these, the fact that in the Obamacare—Affordable Care Act—that we couldn’t negotiate prices—little things that erode the confidence of people who are on the side of wanting government to have a role in balancing power against corporate power but are dubious of its abilities to do so in an agile and efficient way.
PELOSI: I completely subscribe to your patience about things that haven’t worked. But there are plenty of things that have worked.
STEWART: [funny voice] Boom. Talk to me, baby. Here we go. Now we’re talking my language.
PELOSI: When we got the majority, one of our Six for 06 was to make sure we had the negotiating power for the Secretary on drug prices, one thing you brought up.
PELOSI: We passed five for 06, but we couldn’t pass the sixth. It was just too much. We made progress on that, and now the president has some of that in his budget—having insurance—pharmaceutical companies pay more. I share that frustration because that was one of our primary things. We passed that in the House. We couldn’t pass that in the Senate.
STEWART: What would you hold up as a pristine example of what I’m talking about on the positive side? What would you point to?I get very irritated when Democrats make this fallacious claim. The ACA, for all of the good that it does, did not make health care a right, and that is one of its biggest failures. If health care were a right, the bill would have enacted universal provision. It did not. Rather, it guaranteed a right to access health care: that you can't be denied coverage and that you will be monetarily helped to get it. But that's not a right to health care. And Democrats work against future progressive reforms by making such false claims.
PELOSI: I would say that the Affordable Care Act is transformative. It’s like Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Care Act, health care for all Americans as a right, not a privilege. Again, honoring the values of our founders—a healthy life, the liberty to pursue your happiness—
So that you aren’t chained to a policy and a job that you don’t really like but are free to follow your passion and your aspirations.
PELOSI: This is a fabulous thing. It’s about wellness, about technology to make sure that medical records are improved as in other countries. So it’s a great thing. It hasn’t been messaged properly. That’s a frustration I have. And as those of us in Congress who have worked to pass the bill, we are totally unhappy about the website thing, not just because you know because it makes government look bad but because it’s an impediment to people getting their insurance first and foremost.
The discussions about the ACA would have been a perfect opportunity for him to ask questions about the abandonment of the public option. Even if she were to blame that on conservative senators, he could follow up by asking why such senators opposed it.