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Practicing for ‘gotcha’ questioning

In late 2013, a group of eager GOP Senate hopefuls landed at Reagan National Airport, just outside of Washington, D.C. Moments later, they were besieged by a gaggle of young, camera-wielding “trackers” yelling questions at them about abortion and rape — two of the media’s favorite topics for conservative neophyte candidates.

But those trackers weren’t reporters, bloggers or even political junkies in search of the next manufactured gaffe to go viral on social media. They were incognito Republican staffers, “trying to shock the candidates,” as the Washington Post put it, “into realizing the intensity of what lay before them.”

A review of the 2014 midterm election results suggests that the shock had its intended effect. It made for shrewder, more skilled candidates, and in many cases it probably helped them become senators.

These days, if you’re running for public office, inane questions from the media are right up there with death and taxes — an absolute certainty. And, let’s be honest, this is particularly true if there’s an “R” after your name.

Just ask 2016 presidential GOP hopeful and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

He’s been raked over the coals these past couple of weeks for his honest but not always artful responses to three questions of dubious relevance to anything Walker will encounter as governor or might encounter as president — one related to evolution (a media favorite), another about the religious affiliation of President Obama and a third about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s comments regarding the president’s patriotism.

Walker has been making headlines for years and for very good reasons, including his bold stance against the excesses of public sector unions, his novel approach to entitlement reform and his stunning defeat of a recall attempt carried out by well-financed big labor. The man has won three elections in four years, quite a feat for a conservative leader in an undeniably blue state. He’s clearly been tested.

But he hasn’t been to candidate boot camp yet, and it shows.

His answers to a series of gratuitous interrogations are probably the biggest news he’s made since he’s started testing the 2016 waters — at least in the eyes of national media ready to pounce on his early popularity in presidential polls and expose him as what some liberal pundits are calling an “unsuitable” candidate.

Of course, that’s a ridiculous assertion. Most Americans care less about his personal philosophy on the origin of the universe than they will about his governing record or his policy vision for the country.

And the recent media buzz around such silly questions says more about the media’s implacable (what CNN political commentator S.E. Cupp calls “cartoonish” and “embarrassing”) desire to expose Walker as unfit for office than it does about his potential ability to run and win a national campaign.

Still, there’s a big lesson to be learned here.

After all, the “gotcha question” isn’t a novel journalistic tool, but “part of the media lexicon — code for asking something that, no matter what the answer, is almost always going to produce a story,” explained Colby Itkowitz in the Washington Post.

Some of the greatest political narratives to be immortalized in print (or on social media) were the outgrowth of an unwieldy response to an unanticipated query.

And in an insatiable 24-hour news cycle, absurd as a question might be, a poor response suddenly makes the questioner nothing short of brilliant.

National Journal reporter Ron Fournier says the “only dumb question is the one a journalist doesn’t ask.”

I beg to differ. But I’d also add that a smart politician can deftly handle even the most absurd inquiry. And that takes practice.

For Walker, the sudden media “shock” is probably a good thing.

If he’s smart, it will make him a better candidate. It might even help him become president.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at cmallen@star-telegram.com.

©2015 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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