Ducking a question

When seeking to avoid a politically sensitive question, many politicians will respond that they want to talk about policy, not politics. Sometimes ducking a politically loaded, distasteful question is merited, but more often than not it’s just a dodge because the question is difficult.

Over the past few months, The Hill’s Jeffrey Young posed a policy question to Republican candidates running for president: What are the White House hopefuls’ views on the Medicare prescription drug law? (Most Democrats voted against the 2003 measure and are not ideologically torn about the issue.)

It’s a politically tricky question, no doubt, but it’s an important policy matter. First, the politics. The passage of the 2003 drug law helped President Bush politically in 2004. If Bush hadn’t delivered the promised benefit with a Republican-led Congress, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would have hammered the president repeatedly on the campaign trail.

But in the 2008 fight for the GOP nomination, saying good things about the largest expansion of Medicare is not calculated to gain approval from Republican primary voters.

The policy question is relevant because the candidates’ views on the 2003 law indicate how they will approach Medicare’s future.

Many seniors are glad that the benefit finally passed, but fiscal conservatives say the bill was irresponsible because it has added a significant burden to Medicare’s already creaking financial future.

For some members, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), the record spoke for itself. All three voted no in 2003. But for others — such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) — it wasn’t so clear.

The Hill usually finds campaigns willing to discuss their candidate’s views on a range of policy issues — they have gotten back to us quickly when they like the question. But oddly, none of the three campaigns responded to our repeated inquiries about Medicare drugs.

Politically, it makes sense to sidestep the Medicare query. But candidates who expect the pack to follow them must show leadership skills, even when the answer may not sit well with a particular constituency.

Part of the reason that McCain almost won the 2000 nomination is because he answered every question directed his way. Essentially, McCain’s message at the time was: “You may not like my opinion, but I won’t hide it from you.”

This cycle, McCain’s views on Iraq and immigration have hurt him and potentially torpedoed his candidacy. To his credit, he has responded to Iraq criticism by saying he would rather lose an election than lose a war.

There are many choices in the 2008 race. Candidates need to be honest with voters and answer the policy questions they get asked — even the ones that make them uncomfortable.