Democrats Are Answering the Wrong Questions

By focusing on bizarre hypotheticals, candidates keep falling into the traps we’ve seen before.

Kamala Harris
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

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.)

It says something about our politics, and the media that cover it, that we’ve largely forgotten the criticism Shaw received. It later emerged that his three co-moderators—all women—had tried to talk him out of asking such a gory and personal question. For her part, Kitty Dukakis called the moment “outrageous” and denounced it as “theater.”

Decades later, however, the media consensus appears to be that Shaw’s immoderate moderating was not just appropriate, but epic. Writing for Politico in 2007, Roger Simon called Shaw “one tough customer” and retold the story of the killer question in awed tones. CNN included the question on its 2012 list of “10 Debate Moments That Mattered.” In modern campaign reporting, where politics is often covered as a sport, journalists always look for surprise and controversy; asking about outlier cases rather than typical ones is an excellent way to create both.

Presidential candidates should expect more of these Dukakis questions than ever. For this, they can blame not just the media, but Donald Trump. This is a president who loves outliers. He appears at his happiest while discussing some gruesome act perpetrated by an immigrant, despite the fact that U.S. citizens commit violent crimes at higher rates than newcomers. And he has abandoned any pretense of moderation, either in tone or in policy. As the election draws closer, his argument is roughly this: I may be extreme, but Democrats are even worse. Reporters, not entirely unreasonably, feel a responsibility to test that theory by seeing exactly how far his would-be challengers will go.

Which brings us back to this week and a question that, while eagerly amplified by journalists, was first asked by a Harvard junior. “You’ve said that you believe that people with felony records should be allowed to vote while in prison,” the student asked Senator Bernie Sanders at a CNN town hall. “Does this mean that you would support enfranchising people like the Boston Marathon bomber?”

The three candidates who addressed the question have all proved themselves to be highly skilled campaigners. But none of them handled the moment particularly well.

Sanders enthusiastically embraced Tsarnaev’s right to vote. While voting rights in general are quite popular, opposition to Tsarnaev’s somehow united both Lindsey Graham and Cher in opposition.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg argued that some criminals should have their voting rights deprived as “punishment,” and that you should be able to vote only once you’ve paid your debt to society. It’s an argument that conveniently keeps the Boston bomber off the rolls. Less conveniently, it’s the same argument used by Florida Republicans, who this week passed a bill disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens who were formerly, but are not currently, incarcerated.

Senator Kamala Harris said the issue was worth a conversation. Then, in a press conference a day later, she said that it was complicated and that she would talk to experts before making up her mind. This is the political equivalent of saying you’re in a tunnel before making static noises and hanging up the phone.

Each candidate addressed the question in a different way, but none of them managed to refocus the conversation on something they would actually have to deal with as president.

And that’s a real problem. People frequently assume that political candidates try to convince voters to agree with their answers. But just as often, in my experience, they try to convince voters to agree with their questions. I saw this sleight of hand as a junior speechwriter for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. We knew that if voters asked themselves, “Am I happy with how quickly the economy has recovered?” Obama would have an uphill road to reelection. But if people asked instead, “Who would I want in charge going forward?” they would pick the incumbent. In the end, enough voters asked the right questions, and Obama won a second term.

As a president, Trump couldn’t be more different, but he faces a similar challenge as he mounts his reelection bid. If Americans are focused on health care, taxes, or climate change, he’s likely to lose. If they’re focused on something controversial but fundamentally unimportant, like, say, the democratic liberties afforded to a single particularly heinous citizen, the president has a fighting chance.

Which is why Democrats need to get better at answering Dukakis questions, and quickly. It’s fine to start by engaging the emotional content. There’s no need to be a robot. After that, however, it’s not just acceptable but necessary to get a little meta. They shouldn’t dodge the question—instead, they should evaluate it. If a candidate doesn’t think something is relevant to the job of being president, he or she should say so.

The adage in politics is “Answer the question you wish you were asked.” But perhaps a better, more intellectually honest approach is this: “Answer the question that really matters.”

In the case of voting rights, there is certainly a question that needs answering. There are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and 2.199999 million of them are not Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The problem is not the number of Boston bombers who can vote. It’s the millions of Americans, a wildly disproportionate number of them black or brown, who cannot. In this country, mass incarceration has been turned into a tool for mass disenfranchisement. That’s the real crisis the next president will face. And how best to face it is the kind of debate worth having.