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Chris Honoré: ‘Gotcha questions’ and the Fourth Estate

During the recent Republican debate on CNBC, Carl Quintanillas asked Sen. Ted Cruz the following question:

“Congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown and calm financial markets of the fear that a Washington crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show you’re not the kind of problem solver that American voters want?”

Sounds like a fair question. In other words, why, Senator Cruz, are you against raising the debt limit, since this is merely agreeing to pay those bills that Washington has already incurred? To do otherwise, to default, would be seismic for world markets.

Clearly, this was a question that Cruz did not want to answer. Instead he used his time to say this: “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media … you look at the questions — ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about substantive issues?”

The senator never answered the debt ceiling question. But what he did do, to rousing applause and cheers from the audience, was trash the moderators and the media (aka the Fourth Estate) and those gathered for this event welcomed the opportunity.

Cruz then went on to disparage the earlier Democratic debate, which he characterized as being “between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks (factions of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party in the early 1900s and followers of Karl Marx).” Apparently, this would be the senator’s campaign scaffolding if he were to win his party’s nomination: The Russians (Bernie and Hillary) are coming!

The debate had barely ended when the Republicans made a seamless transition to complaining about the amenities and moderators. They wanted more control. The room is too hot, the green room (where they gather before the debate) should be — what? More comfy? The moderators are too mean. Plus, the first debate was too long. Trump complained about standing behind a podium for more than two hours. Candidates should be able to make an opening statement and a closing statement. Marco Rubio, also frustrated with the CNBC questions, riffed on an answer and then blurted out, “I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother …” Good to know, Senator. Let’s ask your mom how she feels about expanding both Social Security and Medicare. I believe you are against both.

According to Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, “the CNBC moderators engaged in ‘gotcha questions,’ petty, mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.” Has Priebus forgotten that this is not the Disney channel?

But in all deference to the chairman, let’s take a moment and define what a “gotcha question” really is and speculate about its origin. Some would define a GQ as any question asked of politicians that they are unprepared to answer, often because said answer would expose something unflattering. Or they simply haven’t given the topic much thought. If either is the case, then said question is either dodged or flipped, which is what Cruz did so effectively.

There are those who opine that Sarah Palin coined the term “gotcha question” not long after being interviewed by Katie Couric of CBS. Palin accused Couric of “gotcha journalism” when she, Couric, asked her, “What magazines and newspapers do you read?”

Palin answered, “all of ‘em,” and then went on to explain that Alaska was a microcosm of the rest of the nation. A nice dodge, as was the foreign policy/Russia question. Palin pointed out that she could see Russia from her house (or was that Tina Fey?).

In truth, gotcha questions are low-hanging fruit for a prepared candidate. “Prepared” being the operative word. But then this is, after all, the big show, the majors, a run for the presidency. And being prepared is assumed, until proven otherwise. Which is the job of the Fourth Estate, no matter what the Republican candidates say about formats and “gotchas.” After all, there’s no crying in baseball or presidential primaries (unless Boehner runs).

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.