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Misheard the Question

The phrase “misheard the question” is often invoked as a means of damage control when a politician gives an answer that generates negative attention or backlash.

Though ostensibly used to indicate a simple misunderstanding, the phrase is frequently viewed with skepticism, seen either as an attempt to walk back a gaffe without fully admitting to it, or as a strategic dodge to buy time and reframe the issue.

The efficacy of claiming to have “misheard the question” varies depending on the context and the individual’s credibility, and can itself become a subject of media scrutiny.

More on “Misheard the Question”

Another form of a walk-back that gives a politician plausible deniability after a statement they wish they hadn’t uttered.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush exemplified this when in spring 2015 he stumbled—repeatedly—in response to Fox News’s questions about whether he would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, initiated by his older brother. Ana Navarro, a political ally of both Bushes, sought to defend him on CNN: “I emailed him this morning and I said to him, ‘Hey, I’m a little confused by this answer, so I’m genuinely wondering, did you mishear the question?’” Navarro said. “And he said, ‘Yes, I misheard the question.’”

Not surprisingly, Democrats pounced. On that same CNN show, strategist Paul Begala quipped, “I didn’t know he had a hearing impairment and we pray for his swift recovery.”

Seven years earlier, in April 2008, the news media had a field day reporting that Hillary Clinton had privately told New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, another presidential candidate that year, that Barack Obama couldn’t win the general election. When asked if she had made the comment to Richardson, she appeared to deny it, telling reporters: “That’s a no.” But Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee later said his boss misheard the question and thought she was being pressed on whether she was willing to reveal what she had said to Richardson: “Senator Clinton was simply reiterating what she had just said; she doesn’t talk about private conversations,” Elleithee said.

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Misheard the Question” in a sentence

  • After his controversial remarks in the debate went viral, the senator quickly issued a statement claiming he had “misheard the question,” though many viewed this as a convenient excuse to backtrack.
  • When pressed about her voting record during the town hall, the congresswoman said she had “misheard the question,” a response that only fueled further questions from both the media and her constituents.
  • In an attempt to mitigate the damage from his misleading answer about foreign policy, the candidate said he “misheard the question,” but this did little to quell criticisms from experts who found the original response uninformed.