Stupid Debate Questions: Don’t Answer Them
posted at 8:29 am on October 2, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
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