Hooray for Hypotheticals

Obama doesn’t dodge “what if” questions.  Good for him!

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Sen. Barack Obama

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.

These were not personal questions, such as the hypothetical posed to Michael Dukakis in 1988 about whether he would support the death penalty for a man who murdered his wife. Nor were they the late-night stoned variety of hypothetical. When someone asks a candidate what super power he’d most like to have, or whether Bruce Lee would win a fight with Muhammad Ali, then we can cry foul. 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.

Perhaps as a former law professor, Obama isn’t afraid of these kinds of questions. Law school is nothing but hypotheticals. Or perhaps Obama is comfortable because his answer to the 2002 hypothetical about whether he would vote to authorize force against Iraq has worked to his political advantage. If he’d ducked then, he couldn’t gloat now.

It’s too early to tell if Obama is benefiting politically from all of this risky public thinking. Joe Biden has now joined Hillary Clinton in calling him naive (audio) for expressing his hypothetical views. Sen. Chris Dodd has called him “confusing and confused.” And it must be said that there is a certain pileup quality to his hypothetical scenarios. He said he would attack al-Qaida targets in Pakistan even if President Gen. Pervez Musharraf didn’t give his OK. That might very well unleash a backlash that would overthrow the Pakistani leader and put the country’s nuclear arsenal in the hands of extremists. In an answer to a hypothetical in 2004, Obama said that eventuality would lead him to very seriously consider launching missiles.

But what might not be great for Obama politically is great for us, so we should thank him for taking the risk. These kinds of questions let us see how candidates’ minds work, glimpse at their capacity for imagination, and assess their ability to survey and understand the landscape before them.

We’ve all been asked to imagine how these candidates will behave in office—the grandest hypothetical of them all. It’s only reasonable to ask that they imagine it, too. Hypothetical questions are a fundamental part of being president. You need to know how to pose them to your colleagues and have the set of skills necessary to answer them. They are required in thinking through almost any issue that faces a president. If I make this promise or pledge, what will the reaction be from the public, our allies, and Congress? If I change the program, how will that change the reaction? If my CIA director says it’s a slam dunk that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, how many hours will I spend thinking through the hypothetical: What if it isn’t a slam dunk?

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.