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The art of the political stonewall

at 12:05 PM ET, 05/25/2012

Politicians generally don’t like to answer questions directly. And that goes double when they are talking about something uncomfortable.

The result, more and more, is an on-camera stonewall that would make General Jackson proud.

Case in point: Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Massachusetts Senate candidate who has faced weeks of questions about whether she claimed to be a Native American to get preferential treatment, has met the repeated questions with a good, old-fashioned, political stonewall.

“I told you: I have answered these questions; I am going to talk about what is happening to America’s families,” Warren says in a video posted this week, repeatedly returning to the theme of the economy as a reporter peppers her with questions on what she claimed and when.

Jesse Kelly, the GOP nominee for the special election in former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s (D-Ariz.) district, has similarly been dealing for days with questions about an endorsement from an anti-illegal immigration PAC that some — including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — have labeled racist.

Kelly’s response: Stonewall with a talking point.

“Our campaign’s going to stay focused on lower gas prices, using American energy, lower taxes and creating jobs,” Kelly says repeatedly as the Tucson-based reporter tries to figure out ways to elicit an actual response to the question.

In the same vein, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) has caused a mini-brouhaha over his remarks that President Obama is “not an American” at heart. Coffman apologized, but the questions continue about just what he meant.

His response: Stonewall with talking point.

“I stand by my statement that I misspoke, and I apologize,” Coffman says repeatedly, as the reporter engages in the same kabuki dance as the reporter in Tucson.

And one more stonewall, courtesy of Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), who earlier this month twice refused to answer a local TV reporter’s questions about supporting Obama and his gay marriage stance.

Stonewalling, at its core, is a strategy borne of necessity and not of choice. None of these candidates wants to be on tape giving the same non-answer over and over again. But faced with the alternative — actually answering the question — it presents an attractive option at the time.

The problem becomes bigger when the stonewalling just throws fuel on the fire. The proliferation of political media means there are all kinds of reporters out there that might just keep pushing, and if they have a camera, it’s all the more painful.

Warren is a great example of this. It’s become quite clear that the media in Massachusetts don’t feel that she’s been entirely forthcoming about the whole episode, and so every time she makes an appearance in public, she's knocked off-message by a reporter who wants answers to his or her questions.

Whether it’s actually had an affect on the race is up for debate.

One thing we can agree on, though, is that watching these videos is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. It’s painful — maybe as much for the viewer as the politician.

Who handled it well? Who botched it? Does it really matter?

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