In defense of hypothetical questions.

Policy made plain.
Oct. 2 2003 12:24 PM

Just Supposin'

In defense of hypothetical questions.

One of the absurd conventions of American politics is the notion that there is something suspect or illegitimate about a hypothetical question. 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.

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"If I've learned one thing in my nine days in politics, it's you better be careful with hypothetical questions," declared Gen. Wesley Clark in a recent Democratic presidential candidates' debate. He might have learned it on television, where "Never answer a hypothetical question" is one of the rules a real-life political strategist offered to real-life presidential candidate Howard Dean in HBO's fictional Washington drama K Street.

The question Clark was trying not to answer was "your vote, up or down, yes or no" on President Bush's request for $87 billion to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for another year. This question is only hypothetical in the sense that Clark doesn't literally get to vote on the matter. That kind of literalness could make almost any question hypothetical. The obvious purpose of the question was to elicit Clark's opinion on the $87 billion. And surely it is not unreasonable or "hypothetical" to expect candidates for president to express an opinion on whatever controversy surrounds the presidency at the moment. *

Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked this week whether Americans would have supported the Iraq war if they'd known we weren't going to find those weapons of mass destruction the administration used to justify it. This really is a hypothetical question, as Powell labeled it in declining to answer, but it's a darned interesting one and one an honest leader in a democracy ought to be pondering about now, even if he doesn't care to share his thoughts.

Neither of these examples is the kind of hypothetical question that calls on the answerer to imagine a situation that is unlikely to occur, and one there would have been no good reason to think about. What if a man from Mars were running in the California recall election? What if President Bush were secretly writing a treatise on moral philosophy? And so on.

Avoiding questions (from reporters, from opponents, from citizens) is the basic activity of the American politician. Or rather, avoiding the supply of answers. Skill and ingenuity in question-avoidance techniques are a big factor in political success. Usually, avoiding the question involves pretending to answer it, or at least supplying some words to fill the dead space after the question has been asked. But if you can squeeze a question into one of a few choice categories, the unwritten rules allow the politician to not answer at all. There's national security. ("I'm sorry, but revealing the size of my gun collection might imperil our war on terrorism.") There's privacy. ("I must protect my family from the pain of learning about my other family.") There are legal proceedings. ("That arson allegation has been referred to the Justice Department, and I cannot comment further.") But only an allegedly hypothetical question may be dismissed because of its very nature, irrespective of subject matter.

This is silly. Hypothetical questions are at the heart of every election in a democracy. These are questions the voters must answer. Voters are expected to imagine each of the candidates holding the office he or she is seeking and to decide which one's performance would be most to their liking. Every promise made by a candidate imposes two hypothetical questions on the voter: If elected, will this person do as promised? And if this promise is kept, will I like the result? The voter cannot say, "I don't answer hypothetical questions." And voters cannot sensibly answer the hypothetical questions they've been assigned without learning the answers to some hypothetical questions from the candidates.

Hypothetical questions are essential to thinking through almost any social or political issue. In law school they're called "hypos," and the process is called "salami slicing." Imagine this situation, and tell me the result. Now change the situation slightly—does the result change? Now change it in a different way—same result, or different one? It's just like an eye exam, where you peer through a series of alternative lenses until you zero in on the correct prescription.

Yet even lawyers turn against the cherished hypo when nominated for prestigious judgeships. Then they say self-righteously that they cannot answer hypothetical questions about how they might rule. Once they are safely on the bench, of course, they issue public opinions every day that are, among other things, statements about how they analyze the issue at hand and strong indications, if not more, of how they will rule in the future.

A refusal or inability to answer hypothetical questions is nothing to be proud of. In fact, it ought to be a disqualification for public office. Anyone who doesn't ponder hypothetical questions all the time is unfit for the task of governing. In fact, it's hard to see how any halfway intelligent person can manage to avoid taking up hypothetical questions a dozen times a day.

But we can all name a few politicians we suspect are up to this challenge.

Correction, Oct. 2, 2003: This article originally misstated the hypothetical question Gen. Wesley Clark refused to answer in the Sept. 25 debate. The question asked if he would approve President Bush's request for $87 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, not whether he would have supported the Iraq war resolution if he had been in the Senate. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

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