January 26, 2006

Hypothetically speaking

from - RSA

I read the White House press briefings on most days. This is for entertainment value rather than for information, because it's been months if not years since Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary, has actually said anything new or surprising. There are several strategies for not saying anything, and perhaps the most common one for this administration is avoiding hypothetical situations.

Suppose you posed a question to McClellan or to the President, "If X, then what would we do?" Here are some likely responses:

I'm not going to play a 'what-if' scenario here.
I'm not going to get into just hypotheticals about what are the consequences. . .
That's a hypothetical, and you know I don't do that.
I'm not going to engage in a hypothetical.
I appreciate the hypothetical, but that is a hypothetical and that is not where the process is.
That's a huge hypothetical there.
Again, that's getting into the hypothetical.

These are quotes from press briefings, a few of the dozen comparable statements that can be found. These kinds of non-responses are irritating for a few reasons.

  • All hypothetical questions are put in the same box. "What will happen if we're not greeted in Iraq with flowers and candy?" is in the same category as, "What would the President do if aliens land on the White House lawn and demand that we surrender to them?"

  • Only some questions are treated as hypotheticals. Recently McClellan has been asked about the potential for disruption in the world oil supply as we interact with Iraq. He starts off saying, "Well, I don't want to get into speculation at this point, . . ." and later, "Again, that's a 'what if' question, . . ." And yet the ability for Iraqi oil to pay for the current war wasn't treated as speculation just a few years ago.

  • The more likely a scenario is to involve an unfavorable view of the administration, the more likely it is to be called hypothetical. Ask about democracy in Iraq, improvement in the economy, the direction that Medicare is moving to make people more self-reliant---you'll hear a lot of happy talk. Ask about moving U.S. forces out of Iraq, the budget deficit and national debt, problems people are having with the Medicare roll-out---interestingly enough, issues that are much easier to address in concrete terms---and you'll start hearing about "hypotheticals".

I'm concerned with the way that uncomfortable questions are waved away, but it's not just because I have a particular view of how government should work in a transparent fashion. Rather, I'm afraid, based on the incompetence that the Bush administration has shown in the past, that they tend to ignore hypothetical questions because they haven't actually spent the time or effort to figure out the answers. We've seen this on 9/11, in Iraq, in Louisiana---pretty much everywhere. Who's looking to the future? Or is anything that happens in the future just a hypothetical?

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Posted by RSA at January 26, 2006 01:58 PM
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