Politicians refuse to answer hypothetical questions: A political cop-out

hypotheticalsIf you’re planning a family vacation and one of your kids asks, “What do we do if it rains?” do you say “I won’t answer that question because it’s a hypothetical?” I doubt it. If you’re a member of an economics think tank and a colleague asks you “What do you think that the effect on consumer prices will be if unemployment rises 0.2%?” will you say “that’s a stupid question; it’s hypothetical and I refuse to answer it?”

Politicians often look for cop-outs when it comes to answering direct questions. Often the best questions are the ones that involve the greatest amount of critical thinking on the part of the political figure. “Ms. Representative, if you were informed that four bridges over major rivers in the United States will likely collapse in the next year because our infrastructure is in such disrepair, would you vote for a plan to significantly increase federal spending on infrastructure improvement?” “If you answered ‘no,’ would your answer be the same if one of those bridges was in your district?”

A politician who refuses to answer these questions is being of no help to his or her constituents. Since none of us is capable of accurately predicting the future, the decisions that we make about who we want to empower to have wide responsibility in addressing future issues must be someone who has earned our respect because of his or her wisdom and temperament. We have no way of knowing how a politician will respond to future challenges if he /she is not willing to answer pertinent hypothetical questions in advance.

Recently, Republican Jeb Bush was asked by Fox newscaster Megyn Kelly, “On the subject of Iraq, obviously very controversial, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” Bush seemingly misunderstood the question, failing to factor in the “knowing what we know now” condition. He answered that he would have authorized the invasion. What followed were three more days of presumed clarification by the former governor of Florida.

Answering questions in a high school gym, he was asked about the question and his initial response. In essence, he said “Asking hypothetical questions about Iraq does a disservice to dead American soldiers. …. What we ought to be focusing on is what are the lessons learned.”

His first sentence is very quizzical. First there is the esoteric question of }can you do a disservice to dead American soldiers, since they are already dead.” But what does he mean about hypothetical questions doing a disservice to them? Does he mean that raising questions about the circumstances that brought them to their deaths is a sign of disrespect? If he really means that, then we never can learn the lessons from history. And if we can’t learn from history, then his second sentence–“What we ought to be focusing on is what are the lessons learned”– Is a non-sequitur.

Some observers have said that the confusion that Bush exhibited in his answers is reminiscent of Teddy Kennedy’s failed explanation to CBS’ Roger Mudd in 1979 as to why he wanted to run for president. But unlike Kennedy, Bush was given “do-overs.” Regardless of what one might think about the wisdom of Jeb Bush’s thoughts on Iraq, regardless of the pressure that he must feel because he does not want to do anything that would be critical of either his father’s or his brother’s actions in Iraq, his response about hypothetical questions shows large-scale confusion.

No one should be held to his or her answer to a hypothetical question. Circumstances change, as do our personal values and preferences. However, answering a hypothetical is based on “knowing what we know now.” That is the best that we can do at any given time. For that reason alone, those running for political office, or those already in office, must give us their best answers at any point in time. If what we heard from Jeb Bush was his best, then perish the thought.

Jeb Bush on hypotheticals: