Q: What do you think about candidates who use their spouses as surrogates to say things they themselves aren’t willing to take the heat for saying?
A: The problem is not with the spouse; it’s with using someone else to take the penalty for the candidate’s opinions. No campaign worker should be used this way. A spouse, in particular, creates the perception that we are hearing the candidate’s private thinking, but the ethical issues apply across the board to any surrogate used this way. The surrogate strategy is unethical, and though not a technical ethical term, it strikes me as “weasely.”
If a surrogate says something reflective of the candidate’s opinions and a firestorm ensues, the candidate should have the courage to accept responsibility for holding that position. Without evidence of such courage, the candidate may find the public wishing the spouse were running instead.Q: Is it appropriate for a candidate to plant questions at campaign appearances?
A: Campaign appearances are political theater. They are orchestrated to portray candidates at their best and are staged as media events. Sometimes the audience is prescreened to eliminate any serious challenges to the candidate by his or her opponents. It is not unethical to plant questions. The staged questions can guarantee that the candidate has an opportunity to provide answers that put him or her in the best light. It is unethical, however, to stage an event in such a way as to pretend that all questions are spontaneous and unscripted; deliberate deception is dishonest. Fake spontaneity is deception.
Given the inanity (boxers or briefs?) of some questions and the challenges of turning a bad question into a good answer on the spot, I must confess I’d welcome someone standing up and saying, “I’ve agreed with your staff to ask this question about [health care, climate change, the war or any number of issues more important than jewelry choices] because this is an important concern to many Americans and they should know where you stand on it.” Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock is founding co-director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, and was a fellow at the Harvard Divinity School Center for Values in Public Life.