Bryan Caplan  

Hypotheticals in Presidential Debates: A Pathetic Aversion

Foreign Policy vs. Domestic Po... Foreword to Bryan's Book...

"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.

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The author at Mike Linksvayer in a related article titled One question for temporary dictator applicants writes:
    “What will you do to reduce the power of the presidency?” The disappointing answers I’d expect, in decreasing order of lameness: George Bush exercised power irresponsibly, I will do so benevolently — expected from many Democrat... [Tracked on August 11, 2007 5:56 PM]
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Tom West writes:

Come now, you are being far too harsh.

In general, people will assume that a candidate to which they are favorably disposed holds views that are similar to their own. As a candidate exposes more of their views (especially about critical situations), he or she can only lose votes from would-be supporters.

For Hillary, If this difficult hypothetical situation actually occurred, you could be guaranteed that the candidate would lose huge numbers of votes regardless of the decision simply because her supporters are very split on this. Why should she lose the voters before she has to?

For Mitt, the choice is between common sense and betraying the current efforts. Answering can only harm.

Here's my analogy as to why the candidates wouldn't answer.

Bryan, your family wants to get to know you better, so here's a hypothetical: You are in a terrible house-fire and you can only save your wife or one of your children. Who do you save?

Obviously only an idiot would answer. (And please, if you're planning on being contrarian, for Goodness sake, don't! My conscience would never forgive me.)

SheetWise writes:

They are very different questions.

When Blitzer asks Hillary, "So what happens, Senator, if diplomacy, when all is said and done, fails?" -- it's something that could happen.

When Blitzer asks Romney, "...knowing what you know right now -- not what you knew then ..." -- he's pretending such a decision can be evaluated against a static history.

Tell me, knowing then what you know now -- would you still have married your wife?

Cris Ericson writes:

Our relationship with Iran is better than Hillary Clinton thinks.

My youngest brother came back from his honeymoon
in Iran last fall (2006) with really nice home videos.

The NEWS MEDIA tris to make us think that we are on the verge of all out destruction with Iran,
but I don't believe it because of the reality of people coming and going from the U.S.A. to Iran and back and forth without any problems.

My brother's new father in law, Dr. Bakhtiar, goes back and forth with no problem, likewise other relatives.

The home videos were full of warm and loving Iranian people. So what if they are low on the economic profile and live in tents and herd goats!

Once in a while, one of them goes to town and gets an education and ends up in the U.S.A.

Hillary Clinton's problem is that she has too many astrological positions in Scorpio at the time of her birth, so she loves war.

I think we need to focus on the positive when it comes to Iran. There are a lot of Bakhtiar people around the world now who are focused on good, solid family ties and living in peace. Many of them have travelled a long way from their tribal mountains where so many of their family still herd goats. My biggest concern when I looked at my brother's home videos was if the little children living in tents in the mountains of Iran had crayons and paper. He said they had a travelling teacher with the tribe.

What really surprised me was the faces of some of the men in the home video, the tribesmen, they looked like some of the men who travelled from Iran to New York for the wedding last summer. They really are family people.

And yes, I do realize that some of the tribe are closely related to former Prime Minister Bakhtiar. And I do realize that it will take time for religious differences to be accepted. But for the most part, I think that if Hillary Clinton would stop secretly pounding her war drums, that we can get along with Iran.

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