Presidential candidates have to face a lot of tough questions over the course of a campaign, ones that are directly relevant to the problems the next president will face. For instance: “What would you do with the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.?” Or: “Which programs would you cut to reduce the deficit?” Or: “Under what circumstances would you invade Iran?”

There’s another class of questions that is designed to bore deep into the candidate’s heart and reveal what kind of person he or she really is. These are mostly irrelevant or inane.

The question all the 2016 GOP hopefuls are now being forced to answer — Would you attend a gay wedding? — seems to be of that latter kind. But perhaps we can salvage something informative and useful from it.

First, let’s look at how the candidates who have been asked directly have answered:

  • Scott Walker: When he was asked, Walker treated it as a question about the past, not the future. “For a family member, Tonette and I and our family have already had a family member who’s had a reception. I haven’t been at a wedding. That’s true even though my position on marriage is still that it’s defined between a man and a woman, and I support the constitution of the state. But for someone I love, we’ve been at a reception.” So…maybe?
  • Marco Rubio: He may have been the most straightforward: “If it’s somebody in my life that I love and care for, of course I would. I’m not going to hurt them simply because I disagree with a choice they’ve made.”
  • Ted Cruz: The rock-ribbed conservative and defender of traditional marriage wouldn’t say. When radio host Hugh Hewitt asked him, Cruz said, “I haven’t faced that circumstance…what the media tries to twist the question of marriage into is they try to twist it into a battle of emotions and personality.”
  • Rick Perry: The former Texas governor said, “I probably would, but I think the real issue here is that’s the gotcha question that the left tries to get out there.”
  • Rick Santorum: So far, Santorum is the only one who has put his foot down. “No, I would not,” he said when Hugh Hewitt asked. “I would love them and support them, I would not attend that ceremony.”

One assumes that Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and the rest of the field will get asked the question before long. So is this a “gotcha” question? The answer is complicated.

On one hand, there are few issues on which the personal and the political are more entwined than gay rights. The increasing openness of gay Americans is what has spurred the rapid transformation of public opinion and law on this issue. It becomes much harder to oppose those rights when you have loved ones who are gay. A question like this can help us get insight into the personal feelings that might guide these candidates in the future.

But on the other hand, what a candidate does or doesn’t do in his personal life is ultimately irrelevant. We’re electing a president, not choosing a best man. The important question is what laws and policies they would or wouldn’t change. Unless they’re actually related to him, no gay couple is affected by whether Marco Rubio will come to their wedding. But they may well be affected by the policies he supports, which include allowing certain vendors to discriminate against them.

So when the candidates protest that the real question is about the law and the Constitution, not about their personal feelings, they’re absolutely right. That’s what they ought to be pressed on, so we understand exactly what decisions they’d make if they win.

Having said that, there is a contradiction in almost all their positions (Santorum excepted; he’s the consistent one) that reveals something important: At this moment in history, the Republican Party is in a very uncomfortable place. They all support the idea that marriage is only between a man and a woman; and they all support the idea that state governments should be able to exclude gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage. Yet they also want to show voters that on a personal level, they’re friendly and caring and open-minded and tolerant. We’ve now reached the point where a national figure is expected to have gay friends or family members, and treat them with dignity and respect.

The problem is that the policy position the Republican candidates have taken isn’t friendly or caring or open-minded or tolerant, and focusing on what they would or wouldn’t do personally lets them off the hook. Does a presidential candidate deserve credit for not being a jerk to his cousin who’s getting married? Sure. But what really matters is the decisions he’d make that would affect millions of lives.