In the first five minutes of Friday’s Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, three of the six candidates refused to answer questions as posed. They rephrased queries, rejected scenarios, and chose options other than those offered by the moderators. When politicians revise questions this way, as they do with increasing frequency, journalists accuse them of “ducking.” But if someone swings a bottle at your head, what’s wrong with ducking? If the answer is fair game for scrutiny and dispute, why isn’t the question?
Think about how politicians manipulate discussions of issues. They insert hidden assumptions to rig the dialogue in their favor. They narrow the range of options under discussion to force their opponents into embarrassing dilemmas. They frame lopsided yes/no questions and squelch attempts to articulate a middle ground. When reporters use these tactics, why shouldn’t they, too, be called to account? That’s what the Republicans did Friday. For every artfully framed question, they demonstrated a way to escape and counterframe it.
1. Reject the premise. The first question of the debate went to Alan Keyes. “If you had a choice between eight more years of a Democratic president or eight years of a pro-choice Republican,” asked co-moderator David Stanton of WIS-TV, “which would you choose?” Keyes replied, “I don’t think that has to be our choice. … We have to choose to stand forthrightly for the pro-life position. … So your hypothetical is of no matter to me. We will not face that alternative.”
A hypothetical question is no more important than the likelihood of the scenario it assumes. Imagine that Al Gore were asked to choose between a Republican president and a pro-life Democrat who had pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade. Since no leading Democratic presidential candidate is pro-life, Gore could reasonably dismiss the question, arguing that the Democratic Party is too principled to nominate a pro-lifer. Why can’t Keyes make the converse argument about the GOP?
2. Add an option. The third question of the debate went to Gary Bauer. Stanton asked, “If someone in your family was raped and became pregnant and wanted an abortion, and at the discussion with you they were adamant in their decision to have an abortion, would you support that decision? Or would you try to prevent it?” Bauer replied, “If my daughter or somebody that I loved was raped, that would be the most horrible thing. … I would comfort her. I would pray with her. I would explain to her that she couldn’t make right the terrible thing that had happened to her by taking the life of her innocent unborn child. But the most important thing, sir, is not what I would do under those circumstances, but what I would do as president. And as president I would throw rapists in jail for a long time so America’s women wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
The question is designed to make Bauer choose between two terrible answers: hypocrisy (he’d allow the abortion because the woman is in his family) or cruelty (he’d force the victim to suffer the lifelong consequences of her rape). In his answer, Bauer begins by amending what he deems the less awful of the two options: He wouldn’t just “prevent” the abortion, he would “comfort” and counsel the woman. Then Bauer steps outside the two-option scenario forced on him and argues for a third option, which he claims would prevent the scenario. The efficacy of the third option can be debated. But until Bauer enlarged the question, this option wasn’t even on the table.
3. Choose a process, not a position. The fourth question went to George W. Bush. “A few blocks from here, on top of the state Capitol building, the Confederate flag flies with the state flag and the U.S. flag,” said co-moderator Brian Williams of NBC. “The question is: Does the flag offend you personally?” Bush replied, “What you’re trying to get me to do is to express the will of the people of South Carolina.” Williams persisted, “No, I’m asking you about your personal opinion.” Bush elaborated, “I don’t believe it’s the role of someone from outside South Carolina … to come into this state and tell the people of South Carolina what to do with their business when it comes to the flag.” Williams repeated, “As an American citizen, do you have a visceral reaction to seeing the Confederate flag?” And Bush concluded, “As an American citizen, I trust the people of South Carolina to make the decision for South Carolina.”
The prolonged exchange made Bush look evasive, and he was criticized afterward for dodging the question. But why is Williams’ formulation of the issue better than Bush’s? Suppose Williams were to ask Bill Bradley, “A few blocks from here, women are walking into a clinic every day and receiving abortions. Does abortion offend you personally?” And suppose Bradley were to reply, “I don’t believe it’s the role of a politician to go into that clinic and tell those women what to do with their bodies. I trust the women of South Carolina to make that decision.” Most people would agree that the process Bradley is endorsing (let the woman decide) is more relevant than his “visceral reaction” as to whether abortion “offends him personally.” Why can’t Bush make the same argument?
4. Insert a caveat. Halfway through the debate, Williams announced “a brief phase of short questions and rapid-fire answers. … We will settle for one to two sentences in length, if you must. … All gentlemen will answer this first question. Has affirmative action made America a better nation?” McCain answered first: “Yes, but quotas have made it worse.” Bauer answered second: “The idea behind affirmative action was legitimate and decent. But when you start counting by race, you divide America, you don’t bring it together.” Bush answered third: “Only if affirmative action means equal opportunity for everybody.”
The question seems to demand a yes/no answer. Instead, the candidates reply with “but” and “only if.” This kind of qualification is often ridiculed as evasiveness by those who demand “no ifs, ands, or buts.” But why is a policy of ifs and buts worse than a policy of no ifs and buts? Most people prefer a morality of ifs and buts, and most real-life laws and regulations are riddled with ifs and buts. Affirmative action in particular cries out for such moral and legal nuance. What voters really needed from the candidates on this question were longer answers, not shorter ones. For example, what does Bush mean by “equal opportunity”?
5. Change the question. By the time the affirmative action question got to the sixth candidate, Keyes, it was being completely rewritten. “It may be more important to ask whether it’s helped the people it was supposed to help,” he began. “And I think it has actually hurt them by damaging the reputation of many minorities in this country and not giving them credit for their real achievements.”
Keyes’ answer didn’t precisely address the question, but which was more interesting and enlightening? When the question is more specific than the answer, a candidate can be accused of evasion. But what’s wrong with an answer that’s more specific than the question? Keyes wasn’t ducking the pitch. He was tossing back a weak, hanging slider and demanding a fastball so he could hit it harder.
6. Reject the topic. A few minutes later, Stephanie Trotter, a local NBC reporter, asked the candidates, “Gentlemen, I’m curious. As an adult, what is the biggest mistake that you’ve made, and what lesson did you learn from it?” The crowd booed, and when Trotter was asked to repeat the question, she rephrased it: “Our viewers are curious. On a personal note, what is the biggest mistake you made as an adult, and what lesson did you learn from it?”
Others answered the question, but Keyes stuffed it. “The biggest mistake I might make as an adult would be to treat that as if it’s a question that is appropriate to be asked,” he said. “There ought to be in our public life a certain decorum, a certain dignity. There are things that I’ll tell my priest in the confessional that I will not tell you or any other American.” However, Keyes added, “In terms of what I think we believe to be relevant for the purposes of running for president … maybe the biggest mistake I had made in my public life … was not to have spoken out on the issue of the right of the unborn before I did.”
Keyes overreacted, but his answer illustrated three lessons. First, sometimes the propriety or significance of a question is a more important and instructive topic than the question itself. Whether the question was improper can be debated–as it turned out, Keyes’ comments about his “mistake” on abortion were more interesting than his comments about the question–but viewers benefited from considering both.
Second, challenging questions is a healthy way to hold the press accountable. Questions are instruments of power. Who gets to choose them? Notice how Trotter changed her question after the crowd booed her. First she said, “I’m curious.” Then she said, “Our viewers are curious.” Obliged to account for her question, she appealed to the notion of a popular mandate. Whether her station’s viewers wanted her to ask that question can be checked. What questions should be asked, why they should be asked, and who gets to choose them are now open subjects for scrutiny.
Third, even if the question was really about Keyes’ public life, he ended up answering it. Believing that it was framed too personally, he didn’t just dismiss it. He reframed it the way he thought it should have been asked, and he answered it. Questions don’t have to be answered with a yes or no. Neither does the question of whether to answer them.