If you’re running for president, you’ve got to answer the ‘gotcha’ questions

It’s one of those questions. “Is President Obama a Christian?”

“I don’t know,” is not the right way to answer if you’re a serious presidential candidate.

But that’s what Republican Scott Walker said this weekend, trying to punt and play media critic on yet another issue. His response was another in a line of answers that have begun to raise questions about his efficacy as a top-tier presidential candidate.

First, the Wisconsin governor — who had started to look like the most viable conservative alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a 2016 primary – would not talk about foreign policy while in a foreign country. Then, on that same trip to the United Kingdom, he declined to answer whether he believed in evolution.

Days later, he passed on more than one opportunity to take a stand on Rudy Giuliani’s assertion that President Obama does not love America. Walker was at the event where Giuliani made the charge.

“I don’t really know what his opinions are on that one way or another,” Walker said of Obama.

Presidential candidates have to answer all kinds of questions. Sometimes they are relevant or germane to the event they’re at or the campaign at large — and sometimes they’re not. But how they answer, even these “gotcha” questions – designed as a litmus test of rationality – can be revealing of their mindset, their depth and their mettle as a candidate.

The issue of whether candidates believe President Obama is a Christian is not a new one. It has been coming up for nearly eight years since Barack Obama began running for president.

The president’s middle name is Hussein, a common Muslim surname. Obama used to joke that it’s pretty remarkable that he was elected at all given his middle name is shared with a dictator at the heart of the most recent American war and whose last name rhymes with America’s most hated terrorist enemy.

When he lived in Indonesia as a boy, Obama’s stepfather, who was Muslim, marked down “Muslim” to describe his son on a school enrollment form – even though, as David Remnick and others have reported – Obama’s mother was a secularist academic. But the conspiracies have lived on.

As much as 18 percent of Americans in 2010 described the president’s religion as Muslim, according to a Pew poll. That was actually up from 12 percent in 2008.

In the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton also flubbed the answer to the “Is Obama a Christian” question on 60 Minutes, adding five words she wishes she could take back: “As far as I know.”

John McCain, the Republican war hero senator who ran against Obama for the presidency in 2008, dealt with rambunctious crowds, but famously swatted down one questioner. When a woman stood up at a town hall and said she couldn’t “trust” Obama because, “He’s an Arab,” McCain took the microphone back and said, “No ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

He didn’t respond, “I don’t know,” or the rest of the way Walker did when Washington Post reporters asked his view. “I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” Walker continued.

Never? He’s never seen that clip from the McCain event in 2008? Or the cable loop of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory comments that same year. Wright is controversial and said some things for which Obama had to answer, but he’s Christian.

Walker continued of the president’s religion: “I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?”

President Obama has brought up his Christian faith on a number of occasions, including just a few weeks ago at the National Prayer Breakfast.

But if Walker still was unsure, he could have asked the president about it this weekend at the National Governors Association meeting at the White House, hosted by President Obama.

A spokeswoman for Walker followed up with the Washington Post and said it’s not that Walker doesn’t think the president is Christian, it’s the principle that he doesn’t want to answer silly questions.

“Of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian,” Jocelyn Webster told the Post by telephone. “He thinks these kinds of gotcha questions distract from what he’s doing as governor of Wisconsin to make the state better and make life better for people in his state.”

Walker, himself, made the “blame the media” point to the Post. “To me,” he said, “this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press. The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”

But there are easy, right ways to handle these questions for potential candidates, and one doesn’t have to search far for them.

Marco Rubio said, in part, “I believe the President loves America; I think his ideas are bad.”

Jeb Bush said this through a spokeswoman: “Governor Bush doesn’t question President Obama’s motives. He does question President Obama’s disastrous policies.

When Walker doesn’t answer in a similar form, he opens himself up to criticism that he is trying to cater to the lowest-common denominator, that, if he doesn’t agree with the people that don’t think the president is Christian, that he at least is okay letting them believe that – as long as they vote for him in a primary.

The bigger issue for Walker is that conservatives are sizing up who would be best to take on Bush, or whoever emerges from the “establishment” side of the GOP primary, in a possible long-term fight.

That was looking more and more like Walker, but these kinds of mistakes are going to give some pragmatic conservatives pause and question whether Walker is truly ready for prime time.

Here’s what conservative writer Matt Lewis wrote:

“[T]here is a sense [Walker] could be the guy to bridge the gap between the Republican establishment and the grassroots conservative base. But campaigns are crucibles, and if the last couple of days are a harbinger of things to come, he’s in trouble. Could it be that the governor who fought so courageously against Wisconsin unions might not be ready for prime time on the national stage?”

That kind of sentiment is going to mean more than any number of words written by anyone in the news media. But, here’s a tip for Walker’s team. When a reporter asks the next “gotcha” question — whether the president was born in Hawaii – give a version of: “These kinds of questions are why people don’t like the press. You focus on small things. But absolutely, the president was born in Hawaii. He’s a Christian who loves America, and a great family man. I just think his policies are completely wrong for this country. Now, can we move on to more important things, like my plan to get people back to work?”

That’s the sort of answer a candidate who wants to win would give, anyway.

Support PBS NewsHour: