The 2016 campaign season has regretfully started in earnest, and thus the Press-Democrat has begun their regularly-scheduled ritual of trolling the Republican candidates with questions that are irrelevant to how well they would perform as President: do you believe in evolution? Do you think Barack Obama (who isn’t running again) is a Christian? Do you think he loves America?
The point of these questions is facially obvious: the Press-Democrat desires, every year, to see whether Republican candidates will risk angering the, shall we say, less urbane members of their base, or risk alienating the middle. Never in a million years do they ask Democrat candidates the same questions. Half of Democrat primary voters are truthers – never does a Democrat get asked if he or she believes that American was involved in 9/11. A majority of Democrat primary voters are in favor of partial birth abortion despite the fact that almost 80% of America opposes it and never do the Democrats get wedged on this.
There is a reason that the Press-Democrat keeps doing this and that is that it works. It works for a very simple reason: we, as primary voters, allow ourselves to be trolled into reacting to the candidates’ answers to irrelevant questions. Let me provide some examples.
First, when the Press-Democrat troll brigade came around last week to ask [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ] about non-officeholder Rudy Giuliani’s comments regarding Obama’s love for America (or lack thereof), Rubio offered what I thought was a pitch-perfect response. First, he challenged the premise of the question forcefully. Second, he quelled any possible future controversy by politely disagreeing with Giuliani. Finally, he pressed the offensive by pointing out that Obama’s love of America is not the issue, it’s that he has bad ideas. I would have thought it would be impossible to fault literally anything about Rubio’s approach to an irrelevant question. However, to my surprise, the majority of comments to the post angrily denounced Rubio for having the temerity to say, even for political reasons, “I believe the President loves America,” even between blasting the media and saying that Obama had bad ideas.
This kind of nonsensical hyperventilation is the main reason the Press-Democrat keeps asking these questions and I wish that we would learn to cut it out. Sure, if a candidate gets asked a question that is relevant to the job they will do as President and they answer badly, feel free to unload. But a candidate’s belief vel non in whether Obama (who will not be on the ballot in 2016) loves America is an absolute sideshow to literally everything connected with the job of being President. The only reaction that we, as Republican voters, should have to any response to such a question – even “I believe the moon is made of green cheese,” is total indifference to the answer and anger at the Press-Democrat hack in question who asked it.
The second example is of course Matt Lewis’s frustrating column examining Scott Walker’s response to an admittedly stupid and pointless question (whether Walker believed Obama is a Christian). Apart from strongly disagreeing with Lewis that Walker’s response could be accurately described as “bad” much less “Terrible, horrible, no good (etc etc)”, I take issue with the central thesis of his piece:
As you might expect, some conservatives on Twitter are rallying to his defense. They’d rather stick it to the media than find a way to overcome them. They believe that Walker’s answer somehow heroically demonstrated the absurdity of the media. They seem more interested in a candidate who wants to win the argument than one who wants to win the election. And they are less concerned about Walker’s inability to appropriately handle the question than they were by the fact that the question had been asked in the first place. In their minds, Walker is some sort of folk hero for providing that inept answer. But I can assure you, that’s not how the majority of Americans (who aren’t conservative activists on Twitter) will see it.
Again, I’m not suggesting this was a relevant or appropriate question to ask the governor of Wisconsin. I just know how the world works. As the saying goes, I didn’t write these rules, I just abide by them. And, what I am suggesting is that, this is the NFL. When you run for president—when you leave Wisconsin and go to Paris and New York City and Washington, DC and Iowa—you invite all sorts of questions. Some of these questions will be tough, others will be silly or irrelevant or “gotcha” questions. The good politicians can answer them effectively.
I think this analysis puts the cart before the horse. Definitely, handling the media well is a skill set that candidates should have and I think it’s a fair point that we should analyze that. But at the same time we should distinguish between handling the media with respect to valid inquiries about a candidate’s record and handling the media’s pointless trolling. The former is and definitely should be relevant. The latter, by Lewis’ own admission should not be – regardless of whether it is or isn’t. So even if we agree that voters will care whether Walker thinks Obama is a Christians (I don’t), we ought to ask why. And the answer is very simple – it’s that people like Lewis on the one hand and the commenters to my Rubio post on the other hand continually get suckered into providing a media cycle for the answer at hand.
I am amazed that more people do not see this for what it is. Walker, in essence, was asked a question straight out of left field. His answer, essentially, was “I don’t know. What the hell kind of question even is that?” Now, imagine a universe in which no conservative comments on the substance of Walker’s response at all. Imagine that the unified response from the right is, essentially, “What the hell kind of question was that?” In order to make this an actual story that survives in a media cycle, the media has to a priori justify the question itself, especially given that Walker essentially did not answer it. In order for a non-answer to be relevant, the question itself must be one of powerful interest to American voters, and this one really isn’t.
On the other hand, if Walker (or Rubio) is criticized by conservatives or Republicans for their answer to a stupid and pointless question, then the critic in question immediately becomes a useful idiot in the hands of any media person who wants to prolong the story. Now, the story becomes, “Republicans criticize Scott Walker for his answer to…” or “Conservative backlash against Rubio’s response to…” which is always grist for the mill.
The end result of this entire charade is that it helps to feed the image that the Republican party is more full of nuts than the Democrat party. Because see? Even the Republicans say so. Meanwhile half their side consists of 9/11 truthers and people who think parents should be able to kill their babies up until the point that they actually take them home from the hospital and no one even knows it because Democrats do not play this game with their own side.
Back in 2008, John Edwards was asked a question at a rally by a 9/11 truther about whether he thought the government had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Edwards’ response was to take out a notepad and nod thoughtfully and write down the alleged “evidence” the lunatic in question presented during the course of the long, rambling, Loose Change-inspired question and at the end he said, “I don’t know, you’ve brought up some interesting points and I’m going to look into that.” Surely, many of the saner Democrat operatives were embarrassed by how Edwards handled that interaction but none of them – even loyalists of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – pounced on him for it. They refused to play wedge politics with their own base and give ammunition to the other side and so they kept mum about the whole thing.
In other words, they refused to play useful idiot. Oh, that we could eventually learn the same lesson.