Hypothetical Questions Are the Best Way to Learn How Someone Thinks. Politicians Are Cowards for Refusing to Answer Them.

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March 25 2014 12:00 AM

The Case for Hypothetical Questions

They’re the best way to learn how someone thinks. Politicians are cowards for refusing to answer them.

President Obama hosts a meeting of G7 leaders on March 24, 2014 in The Hague, Netherlands.
President Obama hosts a meeting of G7 leaders on March 24, 2014 in The Hague.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

At the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on Monday, President Obama and other world leaders participated in a hypothetical exercise playing out what they would do if terrorists gained nuclear weapons. The event was secret because the leaders were developing actual protocols for this eventuality, but none of the leaders refused to participate on the grounds that it was a “hypothetical.”

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

We are in the middle of a renewed conversation about American foreign policy. Whether a president's perceived strength or weakness invites aggression from other countries is open for debate again in a way that it hasn't been since the Iraq invasion. As we evaluate the candidates hoping to succeed the president in 2017, the NSS exercise offers an excellent model for actually learning about how a candidate thinks and acts. In fact, American politics would be much better off if hypothetical, role-playing scenarios replaced rhetorical claims about strength and weakness.

Candidates hate hypothetical questions, which is why we know that more hypotheticals would improve politics. As Michael Kinsley wrote, “by labeling a question as ‘hypothetical,’ politicians and government officials feel they are entitled to duck it without looking like they have something to hide. They even seem to want credit for maintaining high standards by keeping this virus from corrupting the political discussion.” But you can't duck hypotheticals as president. A president spends considerable time in his day evaluating the outcome of certain actions and trying to anticipate various kinds of calamities.

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When the Obama administration couldn't envision what would happen when its health care website collapsed, the president and his team were judged harshly, as they should have been. It wasn’t that they engaged in a hypothetical and made the wrong call. They hadn’t engaged in the hypothetical at all. It’s not that they made a mistake. It’s that they had their heads in the sand.

Electoral politics is practically the only situation in the world where you get to be righteous about—and rewarded for—avoiding a hypothetical. At almost every major company, the job interview process requires evaluating hypothetical situations. At Google, it's the most important question, as Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, told Thomas Friedman: “For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.” These are the attributes a candidate would demonstrate by answering hypothetical questions, showing us how they would think in real time, what questions they would ask of the experts and how they order things in their world. Anyone can distribute sound bites. This requires thinking.

It a perfect world (OK, my perfect world) we'd get candidates to engage in a protracted hypothetical of the kind Fred Friendly used to run on PBS. But since that will never happen, we should at least be able to get candidates to engage in hypotheticals for the purpose of showing us what questions they would ask and explaining to us why they would ask them. We can never know the truly presidential qualities that are required in foreign policy—Does the candidate like to cope with trouble? Can she handle uncertainty? Is he cold and calculating—but by poking around in this area we can at least increase what little we know about how they actually think.

Getting answers to hypothetical questions is particularly important in foreign policy because when voters hand over the keys they're giving the president enormous unchecked power. Congress can do little—if its members even know the full extent of what the president is up to. And the consequences for foreign policy failure are worse. As Kennedy used to say, domestic policy can only defeat us, foreign policy can kill us. 

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