In the first, held in Dexter, a constituent asked, “You have shown with your votes—and I should say we have many variations on this one—you have shown with your votes and your comments that you want to cut Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security. Which one do you want to cut the most?”
Walberg replied, “And when did I stop beating my wife? Is that the next question?”
In the second, held in Delta Township, a constituent asked “Do you believe in the scientific method as the avenue for deciding what is true about the natural world. If yes, how do you reconcile that with your skepticism of global warming due primarily to industrial activity that began in the 19th century. If no, do you think we should drop science courses—physics, chemistry, biology—from High School curriculum?”
“That’s probably the most comprehensive question I’ve ever heard in my life,” Walberg responded, “other than ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’”
In both instances, the crowd laughed awkwardly at both the question and answer.
Wahlberg is far from the first person to joke about beating his wife in an attempt at humorous deflection, only to be met with a mixed response. “When did you stop beating your wife?” is a classic example of a loaded question. Unfortunately, it’s not as universally known as people who have attempted to use it think it is.
In a 2008 interview with the Las Vegas Sun, John McCain attempted to deflect a tough question about why he didn’t choose then-Nevada governor Jim Gibbons as his running mate by saying, with a chuckle, “And I stopped beating my wife just a couple of weeks ago.”
The moment went bad-viral, garnering tsks from everywhere from the Huffington Post to Jezebel (this writer’s former employer, although I did not work there at the time).
At CPAC 2015, Ted Cruz responded to an onstage question from Sean Hannity with the same line.
And last fall, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Abdullah al-Saud, responded to a question from a journalist by saying “This is like the question ‘did you stop beating your wife?’” Then he laughed. The incident, like other incidents of wife-beating jokes from public figures, went viral. And not in a way that person would want.
What’s truly odd about Walberg’s joke is not that he did it in the first place—that has never gone well for a politician, at least in era of snackable outrage. What’s strangest is that Walberg used the joke twice over the course of one night, as a politician or pundit might use a preplanned talking point.
Why would a person who is not professionally funny believe they were capable of making a joke about a subject that takes a lot of comedic skill to attempt? Is this the result of a Trumpian coarsening of discourse or simply an inability of one public figure to learn from the mistakes of the past?
It’s additionally unfortunate that Walberg chose to use that response to a question about cutting programs like Medicaid, which offer benefits to actual non-joke victims of domestic violence.
Walberg communications director Dan Kotman gave The Daily Beast the following statement. “This is incredibly absurd and a distortion of what happened. It wasn’t a joke. The congressman was asked a loaded question, and he responded with an age old example of a loaded question to point out the absurdity of the original question. Anybody who knows the congressman and his wife know they have been happily married for 43 years.”