Why commentators shouldn’t always accept the premise of a question

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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My favorite candidates to watch during debates are the ones who don’t accept the premise of the question. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani was terrific at this. And in 2012, Newt Gingrich probably did the best job of rejecting leading questions (here’s a classic example of Gingrich pushing back at a John King question).

This is different from parrying a question in an attempt to obfuscate or duck a topic. Candidates who refuse to answer questions in order to “stay on message” and score political points tend to be boring. That’s not what this is. Questioning the premise of the question is anything but boring, and quite often leads to more interesting (and accurate) observations. That’s why it works equally well for commentators as it does for candidates.

Of course, this can be difficult to pull off. There is a temptation to answer the question being asked — even if the premise is flawed. I’m probably as guilty as anyone of too often taking the bait and adhering to flawed assumptions. But just as Gingrich’s comments to John King about abortion seem even more apropos today, here’s a recent example where my (albeit subtle) refusal to accept a premise about gun control seems to have had merit: Click here.

As you can see, the question is premised on whether or not gun control legislation could get through the House. This plays into the narrative that the Republican House is a “do nothing” Congress that kills even common sense legislation.

But as I pointed out, it’s not at all clear that Red State Democrats in the U.S. senate could pass anything. That’s a different frame. It’s too soon to tell for sure, but my comments regarding the senate appear to have been prescient.