Traveling overseas last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, currently surging in Republican primary polls, stepped into trouble when he was asked if he accepts the theory of evolution. “I am going to punt on that one,” said Walker, instantly creating news. “That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another. I am going to leave that up to you.”
Coming just days after likely White House hopefuls New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) stumbled badly over the issue of vaccinations, and at a time when many leading Republican leaders deny the reailty on climate change, Walker's evolution slip-up highlighted the party's penchant for getting tangled up in fights over science. And not just he latest scientific discoveries, but long-settled science.
Shifting into damage control mode in the wake of the “punt,” the conservative press swooped in, established a secure perimeter around Walker and announced, 'No more evolution questions!' They're "silly," "ridiculous," "nonsense," "not serious" queries, came the angry proclamations.
“The Hazing of Scott Walker,” lamented the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto.
The hand wringing sprang up overnight as partisan defenders announced that asking a possible candidate about his or her acceptance of evolution was suddenly Completely Out Of Bounds and represented a Deeply Offensive Inquiry. The goal? “Conservatives want to change what questions are acceptable and natural for reporters to ask,” noted Bloomberg's David Weigel.
In other words, they're trying to work the refs at the outset of the campaign season.
But conservatives may have a tough time pushing reporters off the evolution questions simply because politicians, and specifically presidential candidates from both parties, have been asked about evolution for years and nobody seemed to mind. But suddenly it's Katie bar the door? Suddenly it's all an elaborate trap journalists have set for Republicans?
It is according to Fox News' George Will. On February 12, he conceded, “We should be able to come to terms with the fact when asked about evolution you say yes.” But Will harrumphed that questions about evolution are “a standard way of trying to embarrass Republicans.” (Isn't it only embarrassing if Republicans are embarrassed by their own answers?)
In truth, Walker's evolution query was actually the opposite of a trick, or gotcha, question. The governor wasn't pressed on the spot to make a tricky math calculation or to comment on an obscure scientific theory. He was simply asked to acknowledge a firmly-established scientific fact. What could be easier, when you think about it?
But at the Washington Post, conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin complained that the evolution question “has no possible relevance to public life for a governor or a president.”
Let's be clear, Walker wasn't asked who he thought was going to win the Daytona 500 this year or what his SAT scores were, for instance, random questions that would have “no possible relevance to public life,” as Rubin put it. He was asked about evolution and by extension he was asked about his belief in settled science.
Despite shrill complaints about its supposed irrelevance, the topic of evolution remains firmly in the public square, thanks in part to conservative activists who continue to try to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. For instance, during Walker's term as governor, a debate unfolded in Wisconsin about whether a public school district should only teach the scientifically-valid theory of evolution, or also teach the scientifically-bankrupt theory of intelligent design.
That same debate has been in the news for years. In 2007 the New York Times noted that “While governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney opposed the teaching of intelligent design in science classes.” Meaning, Mitt Romney was a Republican presidential candidate who as a public official had taken a clear stance on evolution, and that was a logical part of the discussion during the campaign.
And by the way, the Post's Rubin wasn't alone when she insisted the evolution question was “never asked of Democrats.” Here, of course, is a clip of candidate Barack Obama addressing the issue of evolution during a 2008 campaign forum hosted by CNN. (His answer begins at the 2:10 mark.)
But none of that matters when the right-wing media decide to wage war on everyday journalism. “Let's pound on the guy asking these stupid questions rather than the guy on stage trying to politely answer it,” wrote a conservative at American Thinker. Does blaming the messenger get any more transparent than that?
But pounding reporters over evolution of all things? That's where the right-wing media want to draw the line? Like climate change and vaccinations, there's little or no scientific “debate” surrounding the broad concept of biological evolution (though of course scientists are constantly updating and refining the theory's specifics).
From National Public Radio [emphasis added]:
There is broad consensus among groups like the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and many other scientific and educational organizations that evolution is taking place. The National Science Teachers Association calls evolution “a major unifying concept in science” and supports teaching it as part of K-12 science education. These scientific and educational groups do not support “intelligent design,” the theory that life was designed and created by an intelligent entity.
“Evolution is the foundation of all of modern biology, genetics, infectious disease research, you name it,” wrote Johns Hopkins University medical professor Steven Salzberg during the last presidential campaign.
And here's the real kicker: Evolution has been treated as a routine topic of campaign coverage for years. During a 2007 Republican primary season debate, Sen. John McCain was asked a simple yes or no question: “Do you believe in evolution?”
McCain's response: “Yes.”
The question was then put to all of the candidates who were asked, via show of hands, who did not believe in evolution. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) indicated they did not. (Former Virginia governor James Gilmore, Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Mitt Romney, and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson did not raise their hands.)
In terms of the question, there were no howls of protest, no how-dare-you-sir retorts, and certainly none of the candidates publicly objected to being asked the straightforward question. In fact, days after the debate, Romney returned to the topic during an interview and freely offered expanded comments on the topic. ( “I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe. And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.” )
So what's transpired within the conservative movement since 2007, and even since 2012, to prompt this radical shift where evolution is now seen as a white-hot topic of controversy that Republican should refuse to even discuss on the campaign trail?
Elements within the Republican Party, of course, have waged an increasingly hostile war on science, leaving some candidates in a tricky position. “People who actually believe in science,” noted Heather Digby Parton at Salon this week, “are considered traitors to the cause.”
That's a political dance Republican candidates will have to maneuver in the coming months. But it's not the job of journalists to help Republicans avoid that entanglement.