Tricky “Gotcha!” Questions for Candidates

By David Mills Published on March 8, 2015

“Do you think President Obama is a Christian?” was this month’s “gotcha!” question, asked by a mischievous reporter of Governor Scott Walker. He didn’t answer it very well, but few people do with questions that come completely out of left field. Bad for Walker, but it gives us a reason to look at the “gotcha!” question and how it works. We will be seeing a lot of them in the next twenty months. The great majority — I’d guess 85% — will be aimed at the Republican candidates.

Reporters can ask two different types of “gotcha!” questions. One’s fair and one’s not.

The first asks the politician to explain an obvious contradiction. Politicians who say whatever helps them at the moment produce lots of contradictions reporters can jump on. Jumping on them is a public service. A politician might, for example, attack the administration for shredding the Constitution with “the secret White House email accounts,” in let’s say 2007, and then two years later, when she becomes the Secretary of State, establish her own secret email accounts. Someone needs to ask her about this.

The Tricky Type

Then there’s the second type. This is the tricky, adversarial type. It’s a way of attacking the candidate while pretending to be doing your job as a reporter. You’re “just asking questions.” There are at least two ways of doing this.

The partisan or unscrupulous reporter can ask a “gotcha!” question of a politician who hasn’t contradicted himself. Just asking the question makes his readers think he’s caught the politician, and the politician’s usually fumbled answer will confirm the impression. Even if the politician explains clearly how the two positions actually go together, many viewers and readers will suspect he’s being clever. If he’s speaking to a print reporter, he may find his careful answer so simplified that it no longer explains his position.

For example, the reporter might quote a conservative politician’s support for some form of a social safety net and then jump on him because he voted against a particular program. Or else do the reverse: quote his defense of the market and jump on him for voting for a welfare program. Both imply he’s probably playing politics and doesn’t mean what he says. He can have many perfectly good reasons for what he’s said and done, but unless he’s very good on his feet or has anticipated the question, he’s not going to do well in explaining how he’s acted in accord with his principles. The reasons can be too detailed to explain well in an interview.

That’s the first form of the tricky version of the “gotcha!” question. The second is even trickier, and it’s the one Walker was hit with. This type is basically impossible to answer because the question itself can mean different things and each answer will get the politician in trouble with someone.

These questions usually don’t have a journalistic purpose: they don’t illuminate what the candidate would do if president. The question Walker got is not a question about Iran’s nuclear capabilities or health care reform or racial conflict in the cities. His view of Obama’s religious commitments isn’t relevant to Walker’s ability to serve as president of the United States. He’s Governor Scott Walker, not Pastor Scott Walker.

The reporters who ask these kind of questions know that the poor politician will hurt himself however he answers. When asked if Obama is a Christian, the Republican who answers “yes” will hurt himself with some in the party’s conservative base and the one who answers “no” will hurt himself with the “moderates” of both parties he’ll need to win the general election.

Lots of Meanings

This is a good “gotcha!” question because it could have one of several meanings. It’s “multivalent,” to use a recent fad word. (1) What is the president’s stated religious allegiance? (2) What is his real spiritual allegiance? (3) Does he act as a Christian acts, in a way that justifies calling him a Christian in the sense most people understand the term? That is, is the president a “real” Christian in the way some of his leftwing critics ask if he’s a “real” liberal or progressive? They don’t care what he calls himself but what he does and how what he does fits the definition of liberal or progressive.

The first has an easy answer. The president calls himself a Christian and is a member of a Christian church. When he was running for president the first time he invoked the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr as one of the people who’d formed his thinking about politics. The answer to this question is yes.

The second is known to God alone. To be fair to the reporter, he may not have even known he was asking this question. It’s a question only a Christian would recognize as a question. Jesus told us not to speculate about other people and told some warning stories of people who thought they were his friends but weren’t. All we can see is the outside. The serious Christian knows the gap between his own public faith and his private practice. How much more with politicians, since at the highest level their image is created and managed by people who are very good at constructing public images.

The honest answer to this question is something like “I don’t know, but I pray so.” Actually, the proper answer to this question is: “That’s an impertinent question” or “Why do you ask? Would you witness to him if he wasn’t?” But no politician is going to say that.

The third may or may not have a clear answer. Even if it has a clear answer to you, other people with different political views may have a different clear answer.

He’s Going to Be Misunderstood

A politician who’d thought about it would know that he might answer honestly any one of the three questions and still be misunderstood. If he answers one, many people will assume he’d answered one of the other two and probably get upset. The reporters and commentators themselves would almost certainly do so, because they could thereby inflict the most damage on him.

If you answer the first, saying “Yes,” commentators and many of your would-be supporters will insist you’d just said that the president is “a Christian politician” and approved of his policies. If you answer the second, saying “I don’t know but I hope so,” the first will criticize you for not stating the obvious and the second will think you’re not thinking straight. If you answer “Yes” to the third question, your followers will reject you and that will give the reporters the critical story they want. If you answer “No,” the reporters will unload on you for being intolerant, using Christianity as a political weapon, pandering to your base, etc.

So what happens? The politician asked this question knows it’s a trap. He might not know right away exactly why it’s a trap, but he senses that whatever he says, he’s going to regret it. He hasn’t practiced answering this question because he had no reason to expect it.

Unless he’s very clever, he hems and haws. He starts to answer one question and thinks “No, that’ll be misunderstood” and starts to answer another and thinks, “No, that’ll be misunderstood too.” He runs back and forth between questions like a mouse between cats and looks either dumb or dishonest. He’s been mugged, but voters won’t see it.

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