Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

    YouTube debates cannot break the political restraints of the 2008 democratic presidential candidates

    The CNN-sponsored YouTube debate, Democrat edition, began with famed anchorman Anderson Cooper casually talking to the audience about the uniqueness of this debate. He called it “untried” and stressed that neither he nor the candidates were “exactly sure how it’s gonna work.” Big screens upstage sported variations on the themes of red, white and blue in strategically mismatched splotches, some tilted in mock-carelessness. If this debate was a hairstyle, it would be the long, tousled wave: hours of preparation in order to fake spontaneity and effortlessness. YouTube debates cannot break the political restraints of the 2008 democratic presidential candidates | Illustration by Avi Conant

    YouTube itself has gone a long way in exposing the truly spontaneous moments of candidates. In August 2006 Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia laughingly referred to an opponent’s volunteer as a “macaca,” which is used as a racial slur. The video of Sen. Allen’s comment made it onto YouTube and was viewed over 500,000 times. Sen. Allen lost his seat to Democrat Jim Webb in the following election.

    Incidents like these, which in pre-YouTube days might have made it through a few news cycles before being bumped by the next political misstep, are now available whenever you are and spread to an entire new demographic. How many young Virginian voters would have seen Sen. Allen’s comments on the evening news? Certainly not as many as viewed the video, with an immediate repeat option, on YouTube.

    But YouTube is just as capable of capitalizing on political successes, and campaigns are overeager to tap into the YouTube demographic. Hence, the new age flashing lights, bright colors and fashionable chaos of the Democratic debate. After Cooper finishes telling the audience just how casual the event will be and just how geared toward finally answering the public’s questions, the debate begins.

    The questions taped and submitted by viewers were, indeed, more heartfelt and humanoid than questions posed by moderators in traditional debates, but the questions themselves were just as carefully chosen. Out of over 3,000 entries, only a handful of video-questions were shown, and the questions were the same ones that would have been asked in any other format. Social security, the Iraq War, health care, Hurricane Katrina: these are all issues on which each candidate has a stock answer. The very words used in these answers have doubtless been tested and approved by campaign strategists. No amount of feeling in the question itself is capable of prying a candidate from his or her measured answer.

    Even the principle that guides the YouTube debate, the principle that connecting candidates with the electorate will foster better communication and understanding, seems a moot point. When a Southern Baptist minister’s broader question about using the Bible as a tool to justify political goals gets reduced to Sen. John Edwards’ views of gay marriage, Cooper chivalrously tries to re-ask the question but runs out of time. No communication there and nothing more illuminating than a one-line policy viewpoint that could have been read straight from Edwards’ Web site.

    The most interesting parts of the YouTube debates arise not from its unique forum but from the candidates themselves. Only when Sen. Mike Gravel takes on Sen. Barack Obama about campaign finance does the entertainment factor begin to kick in. This is what the YouTube debates want, isn’t it? The exchanging of ideas in a setting to reach out to young voters, those not likely to watch Jim Lehrer moderate debates on PBS. As soon as its starts, Cooper cuts off the exchange and moves on.

    But for a brief moment, we are reminded: These are human beings, and of course they want to put forth their ideas in the most eloquent and understandable manner possible. But they are also political animals, and by that nature are not scared of a nitty-gritty debate, one in which candidates are allowed to challenge each other as well as nod politely during another’s sound bite. If we need more interaction between candidates and voters, we also need it between the candidates themselves.

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