When someone at a restaurant asked Palin a question about Pakistan that generated some controversy because it seemed to contradict McCain’s previous statement at the debate, the McCain campaign dubbed it “gotcha journalism” and right away when Gibson stumped Palin with his Bush Doctrine question there was a great hue and cry about the “gotcha” nature of this question.  Apparently the questions on her reading habits and Court rulings has also been defined as a “gotcha” question by Palin supporters, even though it is as certain as the sun rising that journalists will ask nominees their views on judicial philosophy and Court rulings.  It seems to me that we are redefining what “gotcha” means from the sort of Russertian exegesis that involved laying careful ambushes for smooth, evasive pols as a way of pinning down their positions to any question that candidates have trouble answering.  In other words, the “gotcha” is no longer an ambush–it can include any question to which the candidate really should have an answer.         

The classic “gotcha” structure works something like this: “Governor, on such and such a day, you said that you supported X, but last week you said A, which many experts claim implies support for Y.  Are you in favor of Y, and have you been misleading us all this time?”  Say yes, and you’re a fraud; say no, and you’re an idiot.  The questioner then sits back and watches the candidate tap dance his way out of the trap.  The good dancers are considered competent, and the clumsy ones are considered unfit.  There is some debate about whether this is useful, and there are reasons to find fault with it as a substitute for more serious questions, but on the whole it tends to keep pols on their toes and makes them slightly more accountable.  But now we are declaring questions that are simply queries for information: “what do you think about X?” or “are there other Court rulings with which you disagree?”  This is not a trick.  As many commenters and bloggers have observed, Exxon v. Baker would have been an obvious answer, Alaska-related ruling that Palin has disagreed with formally in her capacity as governor that would have combined all of her favorite themes: Alaska, fighting Big Oil and fighting for the people.  She could have won a couple of conservationist points in the process.  Did she say any of that?  No.  If she accepts a right to privacy and she is also a federalist, what does she make of Lawrence v. Henry?  Again, these are not tricks–they are attempts to discern what her worldview is and what her understanding of the Constitution is, which are both very relevant if she is going to have a role in advising McCain on judicial nominees and especially since she would be in a position to assume the Presidency herself.     

When this year’s rulings came down, the presidential nominees either volunteered their opinions on the rulings or they were asked about them.  McCain denounced Boumediene and endorsed Heller.  Obama supported both, which caused him some trouble because he had said that he thought the D.C. gun ban was constitutional.  Would it have been “gotcha” journalism to ask Palin if she also disagreed with Boumediene?  Does she, as an avid 2nd Amendment advocate, agree with Heller, or as a federalist does she take issue with the Supreme Court interfering with local regulations?  If Ifill asks these questions tonight, is she playing “gotcha” or trying to gain information and a window into the candidate’s reasoning and understanding of the relevant policies?  This might be worth sorting out in advance so that we’ll know which flubbed answers to ignore and which ones are important.  If all questions are now “gotcha,” maybe we can just skip watching the debate and go have a drink.

Instead of seeing Palin’s poor answers as proof of ignorance, perhaps we could see it as awkward stonewalling, which isn’t an improvement, but unless we do that I’m not sure why it shouldn’t weigh heavily against her that she doesn’t answer many of the questions put to her very well.  Handling the press and answering questions are parts of the typical VP role.  In normal, non-Cheney times, the VP is a leading surrogate for the administration; even Cheney has served as a surrogate when necessary.  Even if all of these questions are “gotcha” questions, being able to answer them or evade them is part of the job.  I suppose there is too much triviality and silliness in the way that candidates are questioned, but would anyone claim that Palin would be doing better if the process were even more substantive?

Update: Ross clarifies his remark about “gotcha” questions, and I see that we don’t disagree on this.