Load Gun, Point at Own Head, Shoot: Republican Candidates and the YouTube Debate

The past week’s online uproar at the thought of Republican frontrunners skipping their turn in the sights of YouTube video questioners has been both revealing and (for a Dem) quite a source of mirth. Talk about a PR black eye — hey guys, let’s give the impression that we’re afraid to speak to regular people unless we’re sure we can yank on their puppet strings from above the stage.

Since Jose Antonio Vargas’s original report that only Ron Paul and John McCain had so far agreed to participate in the September Republican version of last week’s CNN/YouTube debate, plenty of folks on the left, right and center have dogpiled on the candidates, lacerating defenders’ arguments and leaving me with little doubt that Romney, Giuliani, et al will ultimately grudgingly deign to take questions from The Common Man.

Why did this happen? Sarah Lai Stirland, writing in Wired’s Threat Level blog, said early on that it’s all about the war, noting that candidates other than McCain and Paul may be reluctant to face a video as powerful as this one:

By contrast,

McCain has obviously vigorously stood up for what he believes in and hasn’t been shy about his position on the war, and Paul opposes it. So again, it comes as no surprise that they’d agree to participate.

The AWOL candidates and their supporters have generally held that the YouTube debate is either an anti-Republican conspiracy or somehow sullies the temple of democracy (note: have they watched a campaign TV commercial in the last 40 years?). Hugh Hewitt described the debate as a “CNN set-up camouflaged with YouTube videos,” for example, while Publius took the high road:

Say what you want about who chose these videos, and say what you want about my opinion of them, but the simple fact remains that our candidates are treating this election with the utmost seriousness.

Regardless of whether it was the war, fear of snowmen or a belief that politics is far too serious a business to be left to the people, dodging the debate ain’t gonna fly with most online politics observers. Patrick Ruffini has been one of the leaders of the reaction on the right, arguing that “If you think this is about snowmen, you are sadly mistaken. These aren’t frivolities. These are the fundamentals. Without fundamentals, we die.” He goes on to put the debate in clear perspective:

So, the answer is no, I don’t want to be arguing about a stupid debate format. I want to be talking about transformational change in the way we practice politics, and a wild overreaction to a little openness in a debate is what’s getting in the way of that.

Jeff Jarvis takes on the assumption that YouTube itself is somehow a biased medium:

The party line — as we see from Rush and others — is that YouTube is somehow biased. That’s absurd. That would be like the Democrats saying that mail is biased because the Republicans made the first, best use of it. If internet video is biased it is a damned bad sign for the right and mighty strange considering the leading work done in the medium by the conservatives in the UK, France, and Germany.

[Actually Jeff, the Dems used mail systematically first — the Repubs just got better at it.] On the topic of inherent bias, see also Michael Bassik’s piece about a Republican YouTube plurality, though beware self-reporting as a basis for statistics. Zack Exley, in an excellent overview of the ’04 campaign and online fundraising, notes that Democratic politicians have benefited from an online progressive movement that the right has yet to build, and that “walking away from the YouTube debate is just one more way that the Republican establishment is stubbornly refusing to get started.”

Tired of the “problem?” In his Beltway Blogroll site, Danny Glover makes a modest proposal for a solution:

If Mitt Romney or any other candidates get questions they think are inappropriate, they can say so. Imagine the applause any of the Democrats would have received by prefacing the answer to Billiam the Snowman by saying something like: “Global warming is a serious issue, and CNN has demeaned the subject by having a snowman ask the question. But here’s what I would do as president to address global warming.”

Ultimately, this little incident has left the reluctant Republicans looking foolish, fearful or self-righteous, and I have to believe that they’ll eventually cave. As it is, their political piety reeks of self-interested evasion. C’mon guys — take a lesson from talk radio, whose hosts have sparred with guests for decades (talk about social media!). Otherwise, well, let’s give the last word to commentor Casey1, who left this remark on Jose’s original report follow-up story on July 28th:

I think Mr. Romney just blew it, big time. He is the creation of media consultants — plastic, phony and utterly devoid of content. Now he has put the YouTube generation on notice that he thinks they are “disrespectful”. Disrespectful of what, Mr.Romney? You perhaps? Or, maybe just whatever it is you stand for…

At a time of crashing Republican support among the young, is this the image the party’s presidential candidates want to project?

See also: It Worked! Though Not a Revolution, The YouTube Debate Impressed


Written by
Colin Delany
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