If this holds up Obama will be my hero

Slate has a story by John Dickerson about how Obama has rejected the weasel tactic invented, or at least perfected, by Bush for avoiding questions.

To hide the fact that they’re hiding something, candidates elevate their refusal to a virtue. “One of the jobs of a president is being very reasoned in approaching these issues,” Hillary Clinton said to a hypothetical question about sending ground troops to Darfur. “And I don’t think it’s useful to be talking in these kinds of abstract hypothetical terms.” Two days later, Mitt Romney cried hypothetical when asked in a debate whether, in hindsight, going to war in Iraq was a mistake. To give the dodge extra weight, he criticized the question in Latin (calling it a “non sequitur”), on fairness grounds (saying it was “unreasonable”), and, finally, mathematically (labeling it a “null set”), as if to suggest there was some immutable arithmetic law that made entertaining the whole notion absurd.

The hypotheticals that candidates have been avoiding are the interesting, substantive ones. Anyone running for president should have thought through those questions, and if they haven’t, we should know about it.

Fortunately, one candidate is answering hypotheticals. For the last two weeks, the Democratic political conversation has been consumed with hypothetical questions. Last week, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton engaged in a multiday set-to over whether they would meet with nasty dictators. This week, Barack Obama doubled down on hypotheticals by raising his own hypothetical situation in his sweeping speech on foreign policy. If he found actionable intelligence about al-Qaida leaders hiding out in the mountains of Pakistan, he said he would send in troops whether the Pakistani government liked it or not. When asked the next day about using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said he never would use them.

Saying one won’t answer hypotheticals is the most pathetic shortcut I can think of for avoiding hard questions, and the fact that Hillary does it too, well, is there a better example of the problem with her? But Obama at least is setting himself apart as the one who will at least attempt intellectually-honest responses to legitimate questions.

Now, I don’t feel like arguing the relative merits of candidates yet, and I’m trying to avoid getting into this horse race mentality half a year before there are even any primary elections. But can we all agree, the avoidance of hypothetical questions is the most pathetic and arbitrary weasel technique ever? Whatever positions a candidate has, I can think of few things that piss me off more than adopting Bush’s slimy technique for avoiding real discussion. I think Dickerson agrees.

Perhaps the greatest argument for insisting that candidates answer hypothetical questions is that George Bush hates them. He refused to entertain most plausible scenarios as a candidate. As president, the dodge is like his seal of office: He brings it to every press conference. The irony, of course, is that Bush launched an entire war based on the hypothetical scenario that al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein might form a partnership. In the end, the weapons stockpiles turned out to be hypothetical, too. “That’s a hypothetical question,” Bush said, answering a typical question from before the Iraq war about what the American people should expect. “They can expect me not to answer hypothetical questions.” Of the next president, the American people should expect just the opposite.


I would also like at the same time to salute Republican Tom Tancredo for also being willing to answer hypotheticals. However, his answer, is well a tad disturbing.

– Followers of radical Islam must be deterred from committing a nuclear attack on U.S. soil, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo said Tuesday morning, saying that as president he would take drastic measures to prevent such attacks.

“If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina,” the GOP presidential candidate said. “That is the only thing I can think of that might deter somebody from doing what they would otherwise do. If I am wrong fine, tell me, and I would be happy to do something else. But you had better find a deterrent or you will find an attack. There is no other way around it. There have to be negative consequences for the actions they take. That’s the most negative I can think of.”

However this does demonstrate why having politicians answer hypotheticals is important! We now know a lot more about this man than we did previously, and what kind of foreign policy he would entertain. Namely the batshit-crazy variety.


  1. Ugh, attacking Mecca and Medina would only fuel anger and encourage more attacks on us. That would be a most detrimental tactic.

  2. But Sara, you clearly misunderstand him. You see, *nobody* would ever dare to attack us knowing what our reprisal would be, so we would never *need* to attack Mecca or Medina. It’s foolproof!

    Yeah, I don’t get it either.

  3. Well said. This has been an era of mystery as far as politicians’ true views, and answering hypothetical questions has really opened up some insights. ..although I wasn’t sure what to think when Obama caught himself in the one answer.

  4. But isn’t any question about the future “hypothetical”? Thus, Bush frees himself from answering any questions at all. Sigh…

  5. I’m frustrated that he hasn’t done better in the polls so far. Especially given that in the political world, he’s shown the ability to beat the one thing the Clinton network is known for: fundraising. I haven’t been in the field this season so I don’t really have a good on the ground idea of what’s going on with primary voters. It may well be that the Clintons just have a better and more entrenched network of interest group leaders already nailed down.

  6. Answering hypothetical questions forces politicians to make careful, thoughtful distinctions about possible courses of action; refusing to do so is intended to give the appearance thoughtful deliberation without its substance.

    Tancredo’s answer is a classic case of applying an old paradigm to a new problem: mutual assured destruction “worked” during the Cold War, so it follows that a similar use of “deterrence” will work in the “war” on terrorism. Sometimes it makes sense to see if an older way of looking at things might be useful in a new situation, but since Tancredo is still caught up in the “war” metaphor of opposition to terrorism, he has chosen the wrong old paradigm to apply.

  7. The most obvious advantage for candidates to avoid taking a position on a hypothetical question is that they are guaranteed to not be taking the wrong position. Clearly, having candidates that possesses the courage to potentially be wrong is more refreshing and less weasely than having candidates that don’t have that courage. The example of Tancredo points out the other advantage of having candidates do this – we get to see the depth of their wrongheadedness before letting them anywhere near the White House. I can think of no better reason for Bush’s handlers to have made sure candidate Bush kept his mouth shut.

  8. I’m unconvinced, though in the UK I miss a lot of this. On the day, Pesident Obama has plenty of wiggle room to decide what counts as ‘actionable intelligence’ – in fact, it sounds like a circular definition: intelligence that requires action, so he’d act. Criteria?

    Last week, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton engaged in a multiday set-to over whether they would meet with nasty dictators.

    A beautiful example of a straw-manning here: in the Youtube debate, Obama said he’d meet hostile *governments*; Clinton made it sound like he’d said he’d meet foreign *leaders*. Obama’s original statement could have meant no more than ‘my officials would talk to their officials’ – hardly a paradigm-shifting innovation in the conduct of foreign policy. I haven’t followed the aftermath, though – maybe Obama has said he’d personally sup with the devil now?

  9. jd:
    “Tancredo’s answer is a classic case of applying an old paradigm to a new problem: mutual assured destruction “worked” during the Cold War, so it follows that a similar use of “deterrence” will work in the “war” on terrorism.”

    That’s just the problem. During the Cold War, the attempt to contain Communism dictated much of American foreign policy, arguably leading to many of the problematic international issues the United States faces now, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. Similar tactics are being used today, only Communism has been replaced with Terrorism. The containment of Terrorism now dictating nearly every foreign move the U.S. makes, we seem to have learned little from our mistakes during the Cold War, and will likely face the consequences of these decisions a couple decades from now, just as we’re now facing the consequences of decisions made a couple decades ago.

  10. I completely agree with Mark on answering hypos, but Obama has an imperfect record on that:

    For the record, on Friday AP finally released a transcript of the conversation:

    AP: Sir, with regard to terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan …

    OBAMA: Yeah.

    AP: Is there any circumstances where you’d be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?

    OBAMA: No, I’m not, uh, there has been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that’s not a hypothetical that I’m going to discuss.

    AP: Not even tactical?

    OBAMA: No. I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance. Uh, if involving you know, civilians… Let me scratch all that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table so…


    I’m not sure if Obama’s committing to answering hypos or not.

  11. I believe John Edwards has long prven himself willing to take on hypothetical questions and answer them sincerely.

    It’s my opinion, which I’m not trying to impose on anyone else, that Obama and Clinton are cut from the same cloth and that if either of them wins the nomination Progressives are going to find themselves regretting it.

  12. How about this hypothetical?

    If you were beating your wife, would you stop if it came to the attention of the media?

    Obama is pandering.

    He was pandering when he said he would walk a picket line as president. Walk a picket line over a strike he has no idea what the issues are about? I see that as “the same” as a canditate saying he will always support management against workers.

    Taking unreasoned approaches shows a lack of judgement.

    What about this hypothetical?

    Suppose there was “actionable intelligence” about al-Qaida but the only action that would be effective required the use of nuclear weapons? Does he break his pledge to go after al-Qaida? Or break his pledge to not use nuclear weapons.

    So tell me Mr Obama, which of these pledges is worthless?

  13. daedalus2u: I challenge you to construct a plausible scenario for which that premise holds. Not all hypothetical questions are equally interesting — just because you can construct a trick question to catch someone out that doesn’t mean they are meaningfully caught.

  14. Melissa G

    DeeDee: “What would you do if your name was Nancy?”

    Dexter: “I refuse to answer any hypothetical questions.”

    DeeDee: “OKAY NANCY!!!!”

    — Dexter’s Lab, covering the future Presidential debates.

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