Often you hear politicians say this "I don't answer hypothetical questions". Why can't hypothetical questions be answered? What are the grounds by which politicians justify saying that? Is there a way to properly answer hypothetical questions?
The vast majority of the time, a politician's negatives come from what they have said, not what they haven't said. A politician can refuse to answer questions a thousand times without it hurting their career. Anything a politician does say, even if it is reasonable, can be taken out of context, treated as an incorrect response when it is a fine response, replayed in an attack ad over spooky music with ominous narration, later misquoted, and treated as a sufficient reason not to vote for that politician even though it is such a small part of their platform (or not even part of their platform at all).
The following are not examples of responses to hypothetical questions, but they are examples of how twisted quotes have been career-damaging and carried more weight than they should.
Example: famously, Al Gore is misquoted as claiming that he invented the internet, which he did not exactly claim, especially in those words; though he did credit himself with advancing the adoption of the internet in many ways, including the Supercomputer Network Study Act of 1986, the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, and other measures.
Example: Stacey Abrams gave a speech suggesting that the blue wave includes immigrants, documented and undocumented. It is obvious that she would not have meant that undocumented immigrants actually vote in the mid-terms (no politician would be dumb enough to say and mean this in a public forum), but that undocumented immigrants support the blue wave (in non-voting ways, including moral support and advocacy) and are supported by the blue wave. But some people deliberately misinterpreted this quote in order to claim that she was encouraging voter fraud.
Example involving a hypothetical: In the 1988 presidential debates, Dukakis's candidacy was sunk by a hypothetical question in which Bernard Shaw asked him "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis answered "No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life." You probably want a president whose principals and policies remain constant regardless of whether they are personally affected; otherwise their policies were wrong to begin with, or they become a selfish hypocrite as soon as they find themselves in the same position as the rest of us. This was in no way a change from what was already well known about Dukakis's platform. Rationally, this answer shouldn't have changed the electoral math at all. The public nevertheless reacted as though he was a cold-blooded psychopath. (This example was incorporated from the replies)
Hypothetical questions in particular have several other factors that make them politically dangerous to tackle:
- They exist outside of the politician's message. If a politician wants voters to associate them with healthcare reform, then they don't want to answer a hypothetical that could lead to them being associate with a different topic.
- Hypotheticals exist outside of planned responses. This means whatever answer the politician gives will not be premeditated, does not give the benefit of conducting any background research, and therefore, the response is more likely to be wrong.
- It also means that the politician has to formulate an answer without assistance from strategy consultants, the policy director, the communications department, and so on.
- It is not a practiced answer, and therefore more likely to be delivered nervously, ineptly, and with gaffes.
- Hypotheticals lack the full context of the situation. If you are asked how you would handle a foreign country killing an American journalist, in real life you might take into account things like what is our diplomatic relationship with the country, what is our trade relationship with the country, what is the relative military strength between us and them, who within that country perpetrated the killing, why did they do it, who else knew, who authorized it, and so on. In a hypothetical, a lot of this context is obscured; so how are you supposed to answer what you would do when you've been blindfolded from knowing like 93% of the information that you would realistically take into account? You probably wouldn't have an answer in one minute like the interviewer is expecting; you would probably ask the opinion of your chief of staff, vice president, senior adviser, the Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then think about the issue for 80 hours. Many economic situations are multi-faceted, and an intervention in one area likely has downstream consequences, which is why you might not want to speak on an economic hypothetical without the full context of local conditions (maybe your intervention causes inflation to rise. Is the inflation rate comfortably low or dangerously close to hyperinflation?) and causes (are the students doing bad because of poverty, absent parents, bad teachers, underfunded schools, or badly designed standards? Your solution can't be agnostic of the cause). In a state governments vs federal government hypothetical, it is likely that the federal government will fall more in the center of a position, whereas state laws will likely fall further on both extremes, and you can likely contradict your own party platform if you start weighing-in on whether you would endorse states deciding for themselves (e.g. should a Republican say that they approve of individual states deciding to expand abortion availability?).
- Hypotheticals can take place within an impossible reality. Some hypothetical discussions give you a certain premise, but they also included other bundled assumptions that could not concurrently exist in reality, i.e. a paradox. It could be a sort of perfect storm concocted as a gotcha. "What if you raise taxes on highly profitable corporations and it causes federal revenue to go way down?" "What if you pass more anti-poverty measures and poverty goes up?" "What if a stateless territory with no government had a better educated populace than us? Would you consider eliminating public education then?" You should not accept the premise of a question if it is both impossible to exist in reality and also constructed to make you appear wrong no matter what.
Not answering hypothetical questions is basic politics. There is nothing to gain in answering them. If you are running for political office (or even getting a promotion in your job) you should realize that any interview is about expressing your own agenda. Often your agenda is at odds with the interviewer's agenda.
There are several techniques that a veteran reporter will use to trip up a politician. For example the "negative statement without a question": "Many people think you are a terrible person"; the "assumption question": "Have you stopped being a terrible person?". These are combined into the "hypothetical situation where the conclusion is negative": "What would you do in situation X since you are a terrible person"
Only the beginner politician will attempt to answer any of those with "I'm not a terrible person". The correct answer and the one that shows you can lead is: "I am going to tell you about my agenda now"
However, even veteran politicians will fall for the interviewer's tricks. One example that comes to mind is George Stephonapolous Asking Presidential candidate Mitt Romney: Do you think the state have the right to ban contraceptives? After repeated backs and forth Mitt Admitted that they possibly could if they wanted to. After that Romney became the candidate that wants to ban contraceptives. People still remember that, but have no idea what his agenda was.
Political interviews are adversarial situations: the interviewer doesn't want their program to be just a boring a political advert, so they try to add drama by asking hard questions in the hope of catching the politician out. Politicians learn how to play this game out of self defence.
The hypothetical question is move by the interviewer in this game. It allows the interviewer to posit a situation in which the politician must choose between two alternatives, either of which looks very bad.
For instance, if a politician is strongly against raising taxes the interviewer might ask "What if we were about to default on our debt?" If the politician replies "Never raise taxes" then they appear to be willing to countenance a default, which will weaken confidence in government finances and likely cause the government to have to pay extra for its loans. On the other hand if they say "Well, I guess we'd have to raise our taxes then." they appear indecisive and are likely to lose votes from people who oppose tax rises. Either way the politician has lost points, so the best counter-move is not to answer.
There are a few reasons why.
The first would be that a hypothetical question usually deals with just that, an imaginary situation. Where real life deals with nuance, complexities and multi-variate factors, a hypothetical question is usually unrealistically black and white. Answering a question about something that would not happen, at least in the way it is framed, tells us nothing, so the politician risks having an unrealistic scenario define him or her in a way that they would probably deem to be unfair.
Usually, when a situation like that is posed, it's regarding a contested subject. While someone may agree with a politician 80% of the time, and the 20% of the time are on issues that happen infrequently or don't really impact their lives, the airwaves are filled with ads around election time hammering opponents on single, absurd issues on trivial matters that are blown up to be huge moral shortcomings, according to the ads. For the most part, still, when dealing with an uninformed electorate (in the USA, at least), the average voter is either too dim or too lazy to see the crass manipulation that goes into attack ads. That's why attack ads work. For anything that can be used to attack a politician, they are going to avoid going on the record in speech or action, until they absolutely have to, in order to deal with actual votes or legislation or to react to issues of the day. They certainly aren't going to paint a bulls-eye on themselves for a situation that is made up, if they can help it.
Finally, the politicians have little control over the situation when someone else makes up a scenario and sets the parameters for what they consider to be a response. US politicians, aware of how much 30 second ads define them, either by themselves or opposition, are PR-managed to the point of being automatons. They repeat the same meaningless slogans and catch-phrases that tested well in focus groups, and that matches with the slick advertising campaigns, their own and via "dark money" groups that they are illegally coordinating with. To respond to something outside their scripted narrative is to cede control in a way that could hurt their message.
None of this speaks well to the current state of US election campaigns. That's because it it is a cesspool, with expected results. I'm not sure how much these factors are true and how much politicians avoid saying anything, and get away with it, in nations that don't have billions in outside money and donations being spent in a perpetual election cycle, so, if someone is looking at it from a non-USA perspective, "your results may vary."
Because what you think you might do in a hypothetical situation may turn out to be quite different to what you would actually do if that hypothetical situation were to come to pass.
Hence most politicians refuse to be answer when asked such questions, for fear that, if the hypothetical situation does one day occur, what they do may contradict what they said they would do - leading to accusations of hypocrisy, etc.
Other answers have done a good job of explaining the practical reasons politicians don't like to answer hypothetical questions. They didn't address, however, the supposed rationale for not answering hypothetical questions. Obviously, a politician must have some cover for not answering hypothetical questions and there must be a reason they feel comfortable not answering hypothetical questions and wouldn't ever say, "I don't answer hard questions."
The supposed logic is two-fold:
Hypothetical questions are typically under-specified which makes them impossible to answer. For example, "What would you do if a nuclear bomb detonated in the United States?". The problem with this question is we have to imagine a lot of details before we can answer it. Under current circumstances or in general? Do we know who detonated it? Do we know who built it? How large a bomb? And so on. Real questions have all their parameters filled in by the real world, hypothetical questions don't.
Hypothetical questions require us to imagine lots of other counterfactuals and many of those are hard. For example, "If the South had won the Civil War, would the United States exist today?". This requires us imagining so much to get from the end of the Civil War to today that requires essentially just guesses.
Of course, many hypothetical questions are precisely the sort politicians must answer. For example, if you advocate passing a particular change to the law, you must be able to answer questions like, "If we make that change to the law, what about X?". This is precisely what must be defended to defend a change in the law. So often it's just a nice sounding excuse.
A lot of good answers, I just want to highlight one point.
Fundamentally a politician will want to come out of an interview giving the impression of being open and transparent, but without actually saying much.
While this is a bit pessimistic, when you look at how the opposition and the media acts, you want to give yourself the smallest possible surface area to attack as possible.
If you are a politician, and you are able to dodge a question with grace, it is advisable to do so.
For some reason, we generally consider it acceptable to avoid questions involving hypotheticals, so it's easy enough to smile and dismiss a question by saying "I don't want to get into hypotheticals".
TL;DR: Sometimes there are known plans to hypothetical situations (such as zombies appears in the US). But the less likely a hypothetical situation is, the more ridiculous a complete plan would seem, and the more simplified a general answer would be because of lack of resources going into it. Simplified answers are technically wrong in a lot of edge cases. Someone may get a quite different solution if they had a few people working on it for a few days.
Suppose A and B are two nuclear capable countries. Someone asked politician X in country A: "What do we do if country B nuked us?" And the answer was "to nuke them back".
One day, politician Y in country B publicly said that they should nuke country A. Some people relies: "Oh you are crazy!" "Please don't, or politician X will nuke us, and we all die." Some people tweets to politician X: "politician Y is going to nuke your country, what do you do now?"
If the answer is to ignore them, "oh, you dishonest man." If the answer is to nuke them back, "oh, you are crazy too", because politician Y is just a random nobody who isn't supposed to win the election or get any government positions. But politician X, who was much better than Y, now has the troubles to deal with all the following questions about when to use the nuclear weapons, in what exact conditions, and to whom, how many, etc.
Actually, if country B nuking country A is a very likely event, there would be a whole department in country A to watch what country B is doing, how to answer the attack, and how to minimize the damage and clean up everything afterward. The right answer of politician X might be: "Please ask department D, they have a whole set of too-complicated-to-explain plans." Because this is not likely, the answer simplifies to MAD in everyone's common sense, and the peaceful politician X was just repeating the common sense. But it is simplified. It has to be wrong or inexact in some specifically engineered scenario. Now politician X has to bear the responsibility of the whole department, which may not be even considered useful in the first place. This should be too much for a single person. Even if he can get a complete plan, "why do you explain MAD in that complicated way, and has the army and related parties agreed to everything?"
In the best case, his political opponents may find a rare scenario and question him more, distracting him from more useful works. In the worst case, someone provokes a third country unknowingly going into a rare scenario. But if he didn't answer, the uncertainty may have already deterred country B from nuking country A.
Some more practical hypothetical questions might be like:
- What happens if Z betrays you? Do you watch over him everyday, taking a lot of resources, or can I persuade Z to betray you because from your answer we know there isn't that much of security measures?
- What to do if some projects costed lives even if you had every thinkable safety measures? Do you just pay them a lot of money, say sorry, try to make it not happen again, and get away from it and move on?
Dealing with a hypothetical question could be very costly. It was rumored that Mao has encouraged birth because he was afraid of nuclear attacks, ending up with a lot of people and the one-child policy.