Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another Day, Another YouTube Debate

Thursday 11/28/07 7:00 p.m. EST

For the past few days, CNN has featured a little counter on the bottom right hand side of the screen. At first, I thought it might be an effort by Lou Dobbs to tally the number of illegal immigrants entering the country at any given moment. But upon more careful inspection, it appears to be a countdown to the latest YouTube presidential debate, GOP edition, featuring all your favorites: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mike Huckabee…and Mitt Romney as the Beaver. And let's not forget Ron Paul, who has raised millions of dollars despite a platform that consists of replacing paper money with gold shavings and auctioning off the National Archives on e-Bay.

I love the Republican presidential field in large part because most Republicans hate it. Never has the average conservative faced such an array of unappealing options. The baby killer or the immigrant lover. The anti-war libertarian or the pro-war tax raiser. The tired old actor or the vigorous young Mormon. (Oh, did I say Mormon? I meant the vigorous young guy that troubles some voters for reasons that they can't quite explain.) Even the one percenters, Tancredo and Hunter, contribute to the ambiance with their wild eyed tales of Osama bin Laden crossing the Rio Grande so he can have a baby and sign up for food stamps. Or something like that; words spoken through frothing mouths can sometimes be difficult to understand.

To paraphrase John Kennedy's famous quote about Thomas Jefferson, there hasn't been this much anger, kookiness, and self-delusion in one place since Richard Nixon dined alone.

Still, as much as I love the GOP field, and as much as my soul is nourished by the sight of all of them together on a single stage, I detest the YouTube format. CNN sells this as the people's debate, where average Americans set the agenda and Jefferson's dream of unfettered citizen democracy is finally realized. But it is, of course, nothing of the sort.

The people don't choose which of the 3,000-plus videos will actually be played during the two-hour event. That choice is made by the same journalists who crave confrontation and controversy, and live for the moments that candidates lose it on live television. With so many submissions from which to select, Anderson Cooper and the gang can be pretty confident that every possible question has been included in the mix. Their job, then, is simply to cherry pick the ones that they would have asked anyway.

And that's fine, in a sense. Tim Russert can pose a question or a snowman can do it, as occurred during the Democratic YouTube debate. At least we have the pleasure of knowing that the snowman will melt shortly and then we'll be through with him forever; Russert, on the other hand, never goes away.

The bigger problem is that CNN, in love with the gimmick, wastes our time on sophomoric, self-indulgent contributions that add nothing to our knowledge of the candidates or their positions on the issues. When clueless middle aged media types try to pander to the younger generation, the results are often painful to watch. Don't these people remember the Mod Squad?

In any event, I'll endure the debate tonight if only because I have a blog and it beats trying to think up some other topic to write about. See you on the other side.

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Thursday, 10:45 p.m. EST

Well, someone has been listening to me. OK, nobody's been listening to me, but CNN obviously internalized many of the criticisms they received after their first YouTube debacle. A lot fewer gimmicks this time around and a lot more videos consisting simply of people asking questions. In fact, aside from the lame folksong-y intro and two or three cartoon characters (Uncle Sam, Dick Cheney, Grover Norquist), the "most trusted name in news" played it pretty straight tonight.

But as I said before, with the power to select just a small number of videos out of thousands of entries, make no mistake: CNN maintained complete ownership of the "people's" debate. Thus, when one contributor quizzed Ron Paul over whether or not he was a conspiracy theorist wackjob, it was really the network asking the question. Likewise, it was CNN's decision to spend the first twenty minutes of airtime mired in the Tancredo-land of immigrant bashing.

For my money, Mike Huckabee probably fared best. He's a good television performer and he has the sincerity act down cold. Or maybe he really is sincere. I'm far too jaded at this point to tell the difference. Huckabee also pulled off the biggest applause line, suggesting that NASA send Hillary Clinton to Mars, though there was perhaps some awkwardness in the implication that this would be accomplished involuntarily.

Giuliani did fine, too. He particularly benefited from a softball question about whether he was anything more than just the 9/11 guy. Also, he had a pat answer prepared when Anderson Cooper brought up the breaking controversy about Giuliani's security expenses as mayor, which may or may not have had something to do with covering up his philandering. On the other hand, Rudy was again forced to tell GOP voters things about abortion and gun control that they probably didn't want to hear. Iowa Republicans tend to be hardcore social conservatives; New Hampshirites love their hunting rifles. So it’s not clear whether the candidate actually gained ground despite a generally strong performance.

To my mind, Mitt Romney qualified as the biggest loser. John McCain slapped him down mercilessly on the question of waterboarding, and Huckabee, by standing firm on college scholarships for children of illegal immigrants, made the former Massachusetts governor sound simultaneously unprincipled and heartless. Even Romney's well rehearsed line about changing his mind on abortion four or five years ago came off as tinny and unconvincing.

A few scattershot observations:

John McCain, though a bit preachy, sounded better than he has in weeks. McCain, it seems, is a crappy frontrunner, but he shines as the (kind of) straight-talking underdog. Having said that, his sensible and reasoned position on immigration will almost certainly cost him any serious shot at the Republican nomination. And he still waxes a bit too enthusiastically about the Iraq war.

Can it be only four months ago that serious political observers insisted that Fred Thompson possessed Reaganesque charisma? Didn't look like it tonight. Just because you've been on a successful television series doesn't mean you have star power. Call it the Alan Thicke rule.

Duncan Hunter should insist that he no longer be filmed from behind. Not to put to fine a point on it, but baby got back. By the way, given his poor fundraising and low poll numbers, why is he still allowed to show up at these debates without buying a ticket?

As for me, I'm all pundited out. I'll post in the morning.

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Friday, 11/29/07 7:30 EST

For those of you who still take online polls seriously, chew on this. As of this morning, the public's choice for winner of last night's debate was Ron Paul. His supporters must have been up all night keypunching their man to victory. But such are the sacrifices one must make to hold off the Trilateral Commission's bid for world domination.

On the main CNN website, the poll of the day wants to know "[w]ho asks better questions at debates", the media or the public. Last I looked the public was winning with over 80% of the vote. So I guess the network did, indeed, fool a lot of people. Once again, and at some risk of belaboring the point, when CNN can simply cherry pick their favorite submissions from among over 3,000 videos, the "public" is not asking the questions in any meaningful sense.

On to Iowa...

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