The View From 1776

YouTube Boob Debate

Jeff Lukens reminds us that political governance is more than show biz.

GOP YouTube Debate Back On, But Will It Be Worthwhile?
By Jeff Lukens

Well it looks like Republicans will be participating in a CNN/YouTube debate after all. The event is now set for Nov. 28 in St. Petersburg, Fla. The campaigns of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and others have signed on for the event. Mitt Romney has still not said whether he will participate. The GOP postponed their YouTube debate for September fearing a silly spectacle such as that recently held by Democrats.

While the Democratic CNN/YouTube debate may have given presidential debates a new twist, it was mainly a publicity stunt. The broadcast had moments of emotionalism and frivolity more worthy of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” than a presidential debate. Its gimmicky format almost became a clown show.

Instead of a discussion about Second Amendment Rights, we had a guy holding “his baby” - an assault rifle. In place of a legitimate question about Iraq, we got an emotional father of a fallen soldier insisting we withdraw so that he might not lose another son. And rather than a thoughtful inquiry about “gay rights,” we had two homosexuals asking why they cannot marry. Romney observed, “I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman.”

Romney has a point. Has the public become so in need of amusement that we can no longer are willing to sit through an objective presentation of each candidate’s views? Maybe so. Eventually, Republicans must come to terms with the new medium.

Many GOP bloggers and activists are urging their candidates to participate in this new debate forum. Their concern is that if they do not participate in a CNN/YouTube debate, they would reinforce the notion that the Democrats dominate the internet and that Republicans are behind the times.

Republicans, including Romney, should participate a CNN/YouTube debate, but only if it promises not to present the same sense of frivolity as it had for Democrats. If CNN and YouTube want the Republicans, they should agree to select only inquiries with the decorum and substance worthy of a presidential debate. Moreover, CNN cannot act as if it is an agent for the electorate when it offers up mostly left-leaning questions.

It is no secret that television distorts reality and can shorten people’s attention span. Now these traits are spilling over into the political realm by an electronic media that emphasizes the inconsequential, the bizarre, and the irrelevant at the cost of informative discussion on the issues. To our detriment, political showmanship takes priority over substance.

Yet, most of the GOP presidential candidates are backing away from their objections to participating in the YouTube debate. The debate promises to bring much attention from the sought-after 18-to-35-year-old voter block. It would be such a shame if Republicans missed this opportunity. Activists believe that if they don’t attend millions of Americans will wonder why they were so afraid to take questions from the internet.

While the normal response of everyone is to help a person in need, when someone confronts a candidate on video with his or her particular hardship, is the candidate supposed to promise a national policy to aid that one individual? What’s good for that individual may not be good national policy.

A complex issue that took a candidate months to research and thirty minutes to deliver in a speech, and is summarized into a thirty-second segment on the evening news. Television is here to stay, and candidates seeking national office must learn how to present themselves on it positively to have any chance of being elected.

Debates should highlight the leadership abilities of each candidate. But if the candidate can deliver a memorable one-liner, he or she will usually prevail over an opponent who would dare try to explain the factual basis behind a piece of legislation. Because everything on television survives not by substance but by ratings, electoral campaigns are becoming ever more dumbed-down as they strive to be noticed by the media.

In a search for alternatives, Newt Gingrich has proposed nine Lincoln-Douglas style “dialogues,” ninety-minute in length, for the nine weeks before the 2008 general election. While this idea runs counter to a trendy CNN/YouTube debate, it has merit.

As television changes the standards by which we measure a candidate’s suitability for office, the line between news and entertainment is blurring more each day. YouTube accentuates this dynamic toward the trivial. We should remember, however, that a good television performer is not necessarily a strong leader.

And speaking of Lincoln, our greatest president would never make it today on YouTube. Sadly, television would bar him as someone who has no star appeal. Not only may we be losing a true national leader in these debates, we may also be choosing a candidate whose main talent is just that he or she does well on television.

Jeff Lukens is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. He can be contacted at