Green Room

Stupid Debate Questions: Don’t Answer Them

posted at 8:29 am on October 2, 2012 by

Note to Mitt Romney: don’t think you have to answer every silly question thrown at you by the debate moderator on Wednesday.

During last night’s Massachusetts Senate debate, host David Gregory of NBC asked Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren who was their model Supreme Court justice.

As soon as I heard the question, I thought to myself: what the what the? What possible purpose does this question serve except as a trap for one of the candidates to say something that could be used against him or her?

And that’s precisely what happened. Sen. Scott Brown’s first impulse was to point to Antonin Scalia, but some negative crowd reaction alerted him to the misstep. Scalia is often seen as the court’s most conservative member, and Brown is running in a blue, blue state emphasizing his own moderation and independence. Scalia is usually viewed as the enemy of all that is good and holy to the blue crowd (translation: he doesn’t like Roe v. Wade so much). Brown went on to list some other justices he admires, including Sonia Sotomayor, appointed by President Obama, but the stories after the debate gasped out the shocking—shocking!—news: Republican Senator Likes Conservative Justice!  Pass the smelling salts.

When the question came, though, I mentally shouted: you can’t answer, you can’t answer because you don’t know, and it’s okay not to know!

Think about it: Brown has been immersed in the business of the legislative branch of government. The chance he’s spent his time poring through SCOTUS rulings is slim. He probably knows the opinions but not who wrote what about them. That’s normal. He wasn’t hired by the people of Massachusetts to be a Supreme Court expert. There are people who make a living out of the sort of thing. Say, law professors. More on that in a bit.

So the correct answer by Brown should have been something along these lines: My main business has been representing the good people of Massachusetts in the legislative branch. I think they’d prefer I spend my time analyzing bills—which I meticulously pay attention to—rather than analyzing every court ruling and who wrote the majority opinion, who wrote the concurrences and who wrote the dissents. So I respectfully decline to answer a question that I and many other elected officials would not be able to answer with any real expertise. That is Professor Warren’s area, and I’m sure she’d be more than happy to give you a scholarly analysis of SCOTUS rulings from her favorite justice.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at Warren’s answer. One would have expected she would have had the time to study SCOTUS opinions. One might, in fact, assume she is paid to do that sort of thing as a law professor.

With no hesitation, she chose “Elena Kagan”  as her model Supreme Court justice.

Kagan has only been on the bench two terms. Prior to that, she wasn’t a judge. Warren’s main knowledge of Kagan would be from her days on the faculty of Harvard.  Another shocking—shocking—revelation: Candidate Admires Former Colleague.

Warren’s answer might have been swift and smug sure but couldn’t have been based on much actual Supreme Court opinion analysis. Warren’s answer was safe in Massachusetts, though, and Brown’s was risky.

That brings me back to my original point: some debate questions are just dumb. It’s okay not to answer them. I hope Mitt Romney remembers that on Wednesday.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist

 

Recently in the Green Room:

Blowback

Note from Hot Air management: This section is for comments from Hot Air's community of registered readers. Please don't assume that Hot Air management agrees with or otherwise endorses any particular comment just because we let it stand. A reminder: Anyone who fails to comply with our terms of use may lose their posting privilege.

Trackbacks/Pings

Trackback URL

Comments

I disagree with this post to some extent. Scott Brown is a U.S. Senator and, as such, he would participate in the vote to confirm Supreme Court justices. In fact, he has participated in one such vote (he voted “No” when Kagan was nominated; she was confirmed by a 63-37 vote). Besides that, he is also a lawyer. So he can be expected to have opinions about Supreme Court justices.

Rejecting the question can often backfire, because it can make it look like the candidate doesn’t know any answers to the question, when in some cases the candidate should be able to give an answer. (“What newspapers and magazines do you regularly read?” was a stupid question, but it wasn’t a great idea for Sarah Palin to refuse to answer.)

J.S.K. on October 2, 2012 at 9:15 AM

I disagree with this post to some extent. Scott Brown is a U.S. Senator and, as such, he would participate in the vote to confirm Supreme Court justices. In fact, he has participated in one such vote (he voted “No” when Kagan was nominated; she was confirmed by a 63-37 vote). Besides that, he is also a lawyer. So he can be expected to have opinions about Supreme Court justices.

Rejecting the question can often backfire, because it can make it look like the candidate doesn’t know any answers to the question, when in some cases the candidate should be able to give an answer. (“What newspapers and magazines do you regularly read?” was a stupid question, but it wasn’t a great idea for Sarah Palin to refuse to answer.)

J.S.K. on October 2, 2012 at 9:15 AM

JSK, I thought of the points you made before I wrote my post, but I still think it was a dumb question. Better question would have focused on his vote not to confirm Kagan, asking him why. If you want to get at what he looks for in a justice, that’s the way to do it.

Yes, he’s a lawyer, but I believe he deals in real estate law, right? SCOTUS rulings are a different animal, and lawyers themselves probably don’t pore over them unless they are relevant to their own work.

This was a softball for Warren, and Gregory didn’t even press her for details when he should have — she’s the law prof, after all.

Libby Sternberg on October 2, 2012 at 9:22 AM

It’s still good, folks, everyone was watching DWTS last night.

Kissmygrits on October 2, 2012 at 9:26 AM

Excellent blog post from Sternberg, as usual. Definitely one of the top Green Room writers.

I actually think Romney would do well to heed this advice. In the past he has showed a willingness to earnestly answer even dumb or biased questions. I believe that at the very least he needs to make a point of always challenging the false assumptions in the questions, something Gingrich manages to do very effectively during interviews and debates. He ought to answer the way he wants to answer, and not necessarily on the (likely left-leaning) moderator’s terms.

bluegill on October 2, 2012 at 9:42 AM

Excellent blog post from Sternberg, as usual. Definitely one of the top Green Room writers.

bluegill on October 2, 2012 at

Aw, shucks. Thanks.

Libby Sternberg on October 2, 2012 at 9:51 AM

Listen to Libby Mitt

cmsinaz on October 2, 2012 at 9:59 AM

I think it was a fair question, but Browns answer surprised me. He drove his “Im an independent”-shtick relentlessly, the whole evening and then suddenly he’s praising one of the two most orthodox conservatives on the SC? I thought he would name Kennedy, not only because of the name, but because the profile of a slightly libertarianish moderate fits him.

Valkyriepundit on October 2, 2012 at 10:31 AM

How about his for an answer “Unlike our President, I don’t play favorites.”?

Mitsouko on October 2, 2012 at 10:40 AM

How about his for an answer “Unlike our President, I don’t play favorites.”?

Mitsouko on October 2, 2012 at 10:40 AM

Because he doesn’t seem to play favorites on the ideological spectrum, either. It’s why people on both sides think he’s a squish.

mintycrys on October 2, 2012 at 11:25 AM

Because he doesn’t seem to play favorites on the ideological spectrum, either. It’s why people on both sides think he’s a squish.

mintycrys on October 2, 2012 at 11:25 AM

That’s President Squish, to you. Get used to it.

Mitsouko on October 2, 2012 at 1:03 PM

Sorry, Ms. Sternberg, but I think you’re wrong on this one. (I love your writing, though, and normally agree with you!)

Scott Brown is a United States Senator. One of his most important responsibilities is participating in the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices. And that is a necessary factor that voters need to consider when making their decision.

The question asked was perfectly legitimate and to dodge the question in the way you suggest would, to me, sound like he is ignorant when it comes to one of his key responsibilities as a Senator.

Shump on October 2, 2012 at 1:23 PM

Scott Brown is a United States Senator. One of his most important responsibilities is participating in the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices. And that is a necessary factor that voters need to consider when making their decision.

Since a couple of you have disagreed with me — the nerve! — I’ve been thinking a lot about this today. And…I still stand by my original point. I think the question was a “gotcha” one with a Warren advantage.

I absolutely agree that the confirmation process is an important part of being a senator. Then why not ask about that? He could have then responded that one of the criteria he looks for is judicial experience, of which Elena Kagan, distinguished as she was, had none.

I don’t expect U.S. Senators to have a professorial knowledge of SCOTUS rulings or even justices’ thinking. I do expect U.S. Senators to have some template for judging nominees.

Libby Sternberg on October 2, 2012 at 1:39 PM

I don’t expect U.S. Senators to have a professorial knowledge of SCOTUS rulings or even justices’ thinking. I do expect U.S. Senators to have some template for judging nominees.

Libby Sternberg on October 2, 2012 at 1:39 PM

I agree with that. However, oftentimes, the quickest way to “cut to the chase” in expressing what makes up your template is to reference the justice that you most think fits your idea of a model justice. Certainly no one has any confusion when you use the examples of Scalia and Kagan and how they differ.

It may have been a “gotcha” question in the sense that this is Massachusetts, and openly supporting a conservative justice like Scalia is likely to cost him some support.

But I still think it’s a reasonable question overall, and gives us some valuable insight. To give answers like “judicial experience” still leaves the field wide open. Lots of people with lots of different approaches have judicial experience. And saying things like “I want someone who respects the Constitution and doesn’t legislate from the bench” then begs the follow up question of “What do you consider legislating from the bench?”

I just think saying “I prefer justices like Scalia and Alito over those like Sotomayor and Kagan” gives a clear, concise, and understandable answer to a candidate’s approach to judicial nominees in a way that getting into more detail, and not mentioning justices by name, does not.

Shump on October 2, 2012 at 1:47 PM

I agree with that. However, oftentimes, the quickest way to “cut to the chase” in expressing what makes up your template is to reference the justice that you most think fits your idea of a model justice. Certainly no one has any confusion when you use the examples of Scalia and Kagan and how they differ.

True, Shump. But if you’d asked either one a followup question such as “give me an example of a ruling of Justice X you liked,” chances are both of them might have been hard pressed to provide a meaningful answer. Even Warren, who probably hasn’t been spending her days perusing Kagan’s record at the Supreme Court.

I guess I think the question is kind of unnecessary. Folks know that Brown’s a Republican, Warren’s a Dem and both are likely to back their party’s nominees (Warren probably more so than Brown).

I don’t think Republicans should let themselves be led into these traps. I think they should look at the question, figure out what the moderator really wants to know or the people might really want to know (regardless of the question) and go there. As someone pointed out, Gingrich was a master at this.

Libby Sternberg on October 2, 2012 at 2:23 PM