In defense of gotcha questions

In defense of gotcha questions

This column is a defense of the stupid or seemingly irrelevant question. Do you believe in evolution? Do you agree with Rudy Giuliani that the president doesn’t love his country? Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker is the latest in a long line of politicians to grapple with a gotcha.

I’m a firm believer in the principle that the only dumb question is the one a journalist doesn’t ask. The media should use their access to elicit leaders’ views on big and salient questions, of course. But we also must test them. As PBS Newshour reporter Domenico Montanaro wrote Monday:

Presidential candidates have to answer all kinds of questions. Sometimes they are relevant or germane to the event they’re at or the campaign at large—and sometimes they’re not. But how they answer, even these “gotcha” questions—designed as a litmus test of rationality—can be revealing of their mindset, their depth, and their mettle as a candidate.

In 1999, I asked Texas Gov. George W. Bush a series of questions designed to trip him up on abortion—or at least knock him off balance. His staff dismissed them as gotchas; I suppose they were right. And yet the governor’s answers revealed the inherent conflicts of his compassionate conservatism.

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