Scott Walker and the Debate Over Questions

A candidate’s refusal to answer a question speaks volumes.

on January 30, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Win McNamee

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the latest Republican presidential hopeful hit by the London curse when the narrative of his trip—trade and building up his foreign policy credentials—was hijacked by a question about evolution on Wednesday. But by Thursday the debate had shifted to whether there are certain questions that simply shouldn’t be asked of politicians.

As Walker’s evolution “punt” became the main storyline from his trip, conservatives wondered what evolution has to do with trade, and blamed the flare up on media bias. That point of view was summed up by Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist, who tweeted:

Walker also took to Twitter to criticize the way the media was ignoring the more substantial (and uninteresting) issues like Wisconsin trade: 

Media bias may or may not be the reason journalists focused on Walker's evolution punt instead of his praise of Wisconsin cheese, but it’s worth discussing whether asking questions about subjects that straddle the line between personal beliefs and science (like vaccines and evolution) is fair. The journalist who asked the evolution question—BBC radio host Justin Webb—argued during the interview that the topic was fair game, and noted that U.K. politicians are comfortable siding purely with science. “Any British politician, right or left wing, would laugh and say ‘Yes of course evolution’s true,’” Webb told Walker. (The British government banned creationism from schools in 2012.) 

More importantly, Walker's reluctance to discuss subjects other than cheese was surprising given that “the latest Republican with potential presidential aspirations to make such a trip to the United Kingdom … trying to bolster his foreign policy credentials ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign,” as The New York Times wrote Monday. As conservatives have argued in the past, the questions a candidate refuses to answer are usually more revealing than the boilerplate answers politicians have trained themselves to give.  

Several people, including Charles Sykes, a conservative radio host from Wisconsin, reminded everyone of the time when, in 2008, then-Senator Obama punted on a similarly straightforward question, asked in August 2008 by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church: “Forty million abortions, at what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?”


Like evolution for conservatives, abortion is a politically tricky question for someone courting liberals: there’s a large subgroup of “pro-life” Democrats, but supporters of abortion rights would argue that human rights are gained when a child is born. 

Obama’s punt was more serious for a variety of reasons—he was the Democratic nominee for president and less than three months away from being elected president. The venue—a forum with Senator John McCain and Warren—also made the question relevant. Obama admitted a few days later that he’d been a little too flip on ABC’s “This Week,” adding “all I meant to communicate was that I don’t presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions.”

Both Walker and Obama were criticized for not being willing to answer any question and, realizing their mistake, gave disappointing answers. Conservatives and right-leaning blogs slammed Obama. “If Obama thinks this is above his pay grade, then he probably shouldn’t be running for political office,” Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey wrote at the time. The National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote Thursday of Walker that “there are virtually no questions that are out of bounds for a presidential candidate … If you want the job, you’ve got to fill out the questionnaire.” 

Conservatives should take their own advice, but so should everyone sharing Walker’s comments. If someone asks a Democratic potential candidate when she believes a person gains human rights—and they should—she should take a lead from Joe Biden. A few days after Obama bungled his question at Saddleback, vice presidential candidate Joe Biden said that he didn’t believe in forcing his religion on others, but “I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception.”