Hypotheticals in Presidential Debates: A Pathetic Aversion
By Bryan Caplan
“What would you do if Santa Claus turned out to be a Martian?”
It’s a hypothetical question. It’s also a stupid question to ask in a presidential debate. What makes it stupid?
First, it’s very unlikely to happen. Second, knowing your answer doesn’t tell us much about your broader views.
“What would you do if diplomacy fails to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons?”
“Would you have invaded Iraq, knowing what you know now?”
These are also hypothetical questions, but they are far from stupid to ask in a presidential debate. Why? The Iran hypothetical is fairly likely to happen. The Iraq hypothetical tells us a lot about your broader views. Nevertheless, candidates in the debates specific refused to answer both questions simply because they are “hypothetical.”
Here’s Hillary on Iran:
CLINTON: Are you always going to get good results? No. But you’ve got to start the process.
However, we still have to make it clear that Iran having a nuclear weapon is absolutely unacceptable. We have to try to prevent that at all costs.
But we need to start with diplomacy in order to see what we can accomplish.
BLITZER: So what happens, Senator, if diplomacy, when all is said and done, fails?
CLINTON: Wolf, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, because we’ve had an administration that doesn’t believe in diplomacy.
And here’s Romney on the Iraq War:
TOM FAHEY: … Governor Romney, I wanted to start by asking you a question on which every American has formed an opinion.
…Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?
MITT ROMNEY: Well, the question is, kind of, a non sequitur, if you will. What I mean by that — or a null set — that is that if you’re saying let’s turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opening up his country to IAEA inspectors and they’d come in and they’d found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn’t be in the conflict we’re in.
But he didn’t do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in.
BLITZER: Governor, thank you, but the question was, knowing what you know right now — not what you knew then, what you know right now — was it a mistake for the United States to invade Iraq?
ROMNEY: Well, I answered the question by saying it’s a non- sequitur. It’s a non — null set kind of question…
So it’s a hypothetical that I think is an unreasonable hypothetical.
And the answer is: We did what we did.
I don’t know what’s more pathetic: The answers themselves, or the fact that answers like these actually help win elections.