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.