Ballot Box

Why Are You Asking Me?

The president’s don’t-ask, don’t-tell press conference.

Just answer the question!

What is the purpose of a presidential press conference? Is it to allow reporters to ask the president questions? Or is it to get the president to answer them? Dodging the question is one of the most important (and most-used) weapons in a politician’s arsenal, of course. In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara cited the traditional ploy of answering the question you wish you were asked, rather than the question you actually were asked. (Think of it as the reverse of Donald Rumsfeld’s first rule of war: You reply to the question you might want or wish to have, not the question you have.) But President Bush, as he demonstrated during Monday’s question-and-not-answer session with the White House press corps, has dispensed with that old trick. Instead, Bush, having invited reporters to ask him questions on live television, repeatedly told reporters that their questions would be better directed at someone else.

How long will U.S. troops be in Iraq? Ask Gens. Abizaid and Casey. What’s the broad framework for Social Security reform? Ask Congress. Has the Iraq war improved the prospects for peace in the Middle East? Go ask the Palestinians. Every time he was confronted with a difficult question, Bush answered, Go ask someone else. You expect a press secretary or a Cabinet officer, to say, “I’ll get back to you,” or “That’s above my pay grade,” or “You’d have to ask the president.” Well, now the president has been asked. And he told us to ask you.

“Well again, I will repeat, don’t bother to ask me,” Bush said in response to a question about what “tough measures” might need to be taken to establish private Social Security accounts. “Oh, you can ask me. I shouldn’t—I can’t tell you what to ask, it’s not the holiday spirit.” But I’m not going to answer, so don’t waste your time: “I will negotiate at the appropriate time with the law writers, and so thank you for trying.” On the question of how long American troops will remain in Iraq, Bush said, “The best people that reflect the answer to that question are people like Abizaid and Casey who are right there on the ground.” On the Middle East peace process, Bush said, effectively, don’t get your hopes up, but the Palestinians are the ones with the answer: “But I’m realistic about how to achieve peace, and it starts with my understanding that there will never be peace until a true democratic state emerges in the Palestinian territory. And I’m hopeful right now, because the—the Palestinians will begin to have elections. I have—well, not begin—will have elections, which is the beginning of the process toward the development of state. It is not the sign that democracy has arrived. It is the beginning of a process.”

Bush did have a clear answer for one thing, in response to a question he wasn’t asked. (Two things, if you include his clear admission that he won’t be attending the Rose Bowl to watch his home-state Texas Longhorns.) During his introductory statement, Bush explained that Iraq will have “a fully democratic constitutional government” within a year, if the people of Iraq ratify the constitution that will be drafted by the government elected in January. Many observers have worried that the Sunnis in Iraq won’t see the new constitution as legitimate (or “fully democratic”) if they can’t participate in the January elections. Bush dismissed those concerns: “More than 80 parties and coalitions have been formed, and more 7,000 candidates have registered for the elections.”

You go to the polls with the democracy you have, not the democracy that you might wish or want to have, but the test of an “energetic” democracy isn’t the number of political parties and candidates it fields for each election. That’s the same logic the administration used to defend its unimpressive coalition for the Iraq invasion. OK, there aren’t any Arab countries, and a lot of important Europeans are missing, but hey, look at the raw numbers! So what if we don’t have the Sunnis (the French and Germans)? We have 7,000 other candidates (Costa Rica, Estonia, and don’t forget Poland). It’s an election of the willing. Or perhaps the able.