There’s one thing I learned from asking people for suggestions of questions to ask when interviewing politicians:
Don’t ask people for suggestions of questions to ask when interviewing politicians.
This past Monday I sat down for a little while with 12th District U.S. Rep. John Barrow, and on Tuesday interviewed 10th District Rep. Paul Broun. Beforehand, I asked readers to let me know if they had any questions they wanted answered.
I got a few thoughtful responses. Most of them, though, reminded me of the old WGAC AM radio trivia game, “Stump the Chumps.”
One guy – who went to the trouble of sending a snail-mail letter and signing it with a made-up name – even suggested I first set Barrow up by asking how many amendments there are to the Constitution.
See, when you’re interviewing someone, you want to hear what they have to say on various topics. The idea isn’t to see if you can catch them getting an answer wrong as if they’re sitting on some kind of quiz show.
In any event, I appreciated the good questions that I did get from among all the gotcha-requests and windy rants (some of which could be summarized as “You suck! Why do you suck so much?”). But in both interviews I had to acknowledge the obvious: When interviewing a politician in an open format, you’ll mostly listen rather than ask anything.
Particularly interesting was the contrast between Barrow and Broun. I don’t mean the obvious, that Barrow is a Democrat, and Broun is a Republican. The contrast was in their approach to discussing what immediately became the primary topic of both discussions: the dysfunction of hyper-partisan, polarized Washington, D.C.
Barrow delivered a pox-on-both-houses assessment that seemed geared toward emphasizing the importance of moderate politicians (as he identifies himself) and voters. As he put it, you can’t build a bridge over the Grand Canyon without support in the middle.
Broun, who is running for the U.S. Senate and well aware that he’ll need to first win a Republican primary, in essence denounced everyone else as too liberal, and focused on the need for fiscal responsibility – particularly from Democrats.
Where all this points, in my view, is to Barrow’s need to survive in a Republican-dominated district by appealing to the less-partisan middle, and Broun’s hopes for winning the Republican Senate primary by appealing to the very-partisan right.
The difference, perhaps, is that I can’t imagine Broun then taking the traditional route of edging back toward the middle for the general election. He’ll run so far to the right that he can shake his own hand.
What really stands out from all these discussions, though, is that while individually Barrow and Broun are quite engaging – as all politicians generally must be to make it to Congress in the first place – neither of them have exactly been effective at changing the political world in which they live.
Barrow has a reputation of surviving by appealing to that ever-elusive middle by being whatever it is they want at the moment. Broun has a reputation of standing firm on principle (and making sure you know that’s what he’s doing) while passing pretty much none of his ideas into action.
In other words, both of them are fun to talk to. But they aren’t any more likely to fix a broken Congress than anyone else.