Politicians complain about ‘gotcha’ questions, but what exactly are they?

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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During last week’s Republican primary debate in Iowa, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rebuked Fox News moderator Chris Wallace for supposedly asking him a “gotcha” question.

“I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions,” Gingrich chastised Wallace after the Fox News host inquired about Gingrich’s campaign debt and disarray, asking Gingrich to respond “to people who say that your campaign has been a mess so far.”

The infamous “gotcha” question is something politicians always rail against. But what exactly defines a “gotcha”?

“I suppose a gotcha question is one that’s fundamentally unfair because it has a hidden or misleading premise,” former Clinton White House adviser and CNN contributor Paul Begala told The Daily Caller. He provided this example: “Q: Which Yankee before Jeter had 3,000 hits? A: No one!”

“A gotcha question is a knowledge question in which the moderator attempts to make the person … look stupid,” offered infamous Republican political consultant Roger Stone. “I think it is more like saying to Donald Trump, you know: ‘How many members of the U.S. House of Representatives [are there]?’”

“A gotcha question is marked always by mischief and sometimes by malice — political, ideological, occasionally personal,” explained Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “It tends to take as its subject matter the frivolous or not-deeply-relevant. It often includes a premise of bad behavior: ‘Still beating the wife?’”

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter added this: “They are questions that no smart person could answer — Einstein said ‘Don’t memorize anything you can look up’ — but are designed to make the person being questioned look stupid. You will note they are only asked of Republicans.”

Former Bush White House aide and influential Republican political strategist Mary Matalin told TheDC that “Gotcha questions fall under the ‘pornography’ sub-species: You know it when you see it.”

“[S]tand-alone, a gotcha can be perceived to be innocuous and/or legitimate, but is meant to confuse or trip up or demean the interviewee,” she added.

But Democratic political strategist David “Mudcat” Saunders said that while “there have been gotcha questions since ink was invented,” a candidate has to be prepared to handle them  — especially when they are campaigning to be the leader of the free world.

“We’re talking about a person who is trying to take over leadership of the most powerful nation that ever existed in the history of the world,” Saunders exclaimed. “I mean this is serious stuff. This is not ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’”

Saunders, however, did provide an example of a gotcha question that he thinks would be out of bounds, even for a candidate running for president.

“The out of bounds question is to say to Dick Cheney, ‘Do you think that it will effect the race that your daughter is queer?’” Saunders offered. “The Dick Cheney daughter question is ‘out of bounds’ because it has nothing to do with anything associated with the campaign or him.”

Not all those contacted by TheDC agreed about whether specific examples were gotcha questions, especially the famed alleged “gotcha” Katie Couric asked Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign about what she reads to stay informed.

“Former Gov. Palin has suggested that asking a person what newspapers she reads is a gotcha question. No ma’am, it’s just a question,” Begala argued.

Matalin begged to differ.

“[A] gotcha question would be one that elicited an answer which no normal human being would consider a piece of information decisive in determining their vote,” she explained, “as in the poster child of gotchas, ‘what do you read?’ While that might be illustrative to a voter, it wouldn’t normally be a vote determinant, (excepting an answer that might include “Mein Kampf” or anything by the Marquis de Sade).”

But one thing everyone agreed on is that the question Chris Wallace asked Gingrich during the Iowa primary debate was definitely not a “gotcha.”

“When your whole campaign staff quits, that says something about your leadership. Asking about it is simply not a gotcha question,” Begala said.

“Wallace’s question was not a gotcha. It dealt with a matter that is significant, the ability of a candidate to successfully run a campaign, which is a question of baseline political competence,” Noonan explained.

Even though Saunders didn’t think Wallace’s question was a gotcha, he thought Gingrich handled it beautifully because he decided to play offense.

“Never, ever, ever, ever play defense,” Saunders said. “Once he sensed the crowed was on his side he could beat Chris Wallace with impunity … I thought it was a pretty good move politically.”

Matalin noted how the crowd’s uproarious response to Gingrich’s attack on Wallace was significant in so far as it demonstrated “how deep the loathing for gotchas — real or perceived — is.”

Gingrich’s campaign did not return TheDC’s request for comment.

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