In a week during which, among other things, the White House defied multiple congressional subpoenas, the commander in chief threatened armed conflict with Mexico, and we learned that the number of Americans breathing unsafe air is at an all-time high, presidential politics was largely consumed by the following question: Should the Boston Marathon bomber be allowed to vote from jail? The odds of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev swinging an election from death row are approximately zero. But if Democrats aren’t careful, the odds of these inconsequential controversies dominating election season are dismayingly high.
Outlier hypotheticals have, of course, been around for quite a while. The most famous example came at the beginning of an October 1988 debate between the presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush. “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered,” CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked the Massachusetts governor, “Would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
It was highly unlikely, to say the least, that Dukakis would find himself avenging his wife’s death. He wasn’t running for mayor of Gotham City. But by focusing on a hypothetical problem affecting one person rather than a real issue affecting the entire country—the immorality of capital punishment—the question put the governor in a bind. If he stuck to his principles, he was a robot. If he let his emotions rule, he was a hypocrite. (Dukakis chose robot. Watching with the sound off, you’d think he was discussing an infrastructure plan rather than a loved one’s grisly death.)