July 27, 2007

The Monty Hall Forum

The buzz around the political blogs has the Republican presidential campaigns backing away from the September YouTube debate. Mitt Romney has publicly sniffed at the notion that serious candidates should take questions from talking snowmen, and Marc Ambinder reports that Giuliani will likely bow out. Patrick Ruffini says that most of the rest of the field will back out because of the lack of top-tier candidates;John McCain and Ron Paul are so far the only two committed to appear.

Romney took offense to the question selection by CNN:

In an interview Wednesday with the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, Romney said he's not a fan of the CNN/YouTube format. Referring to the video of a snowman asking the Democratic candidates about global warming, Romney quipped, "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman."

Danny Glover says that CNN deserves a black eye for its question selection:

Though utterly predictable for a party with a history of ignoring, fearing and attacking the Internet, It would be a shame if Republicans abandoned their own CNN/YouTube debate. As much as I hated the snowman question, neither it nor the other low points of Monday's debate (think "This is my baby") should become the excuse for even one candidate to turn against the most innovative and voter-friendly format to come along in 15 years.

But if that happens, CNN will bear much of the blame because it took upon itself the weighty responsibility of picking the debate questions -- and then embraced a cheap entertainment ploy more suited to MTV than "the world's news leader."

Patrick Ruffini agrees:

This is a big mistake. The Democrats are afraid to answer questions from Big Bad Fox News Anchors, and the Republicans are afraid to answer questions from regular people. Which is worse?

It's stuff like this that will set the GOP back an election cycle or more on the Internet. No matter the snazzy Web features and YouTube videos they may put up, if they're fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of interacting with real people online, what's the point?

I agree with Patrick that canceling the debate carries some political risk, but just as with the Democrats' snub at Fox, I think it's pretty limited. The general election will come 14 months after this debate has been scheduled. There will be plenty of time for other, more interactive debates both closer to the primaries and in the general election. Ask the Democrats if they're still feeling the damage from rejecting the Fox debate.

Besides, most if not all of these candidates hold town hall meetings with unscripted live questions all the time. It isn't a question of fear but of endorsing a "Let's Make A Deal" atmosphere that demeans the presidential race. For those too young to remember the long-running game show, it featured zany audience members dressed up and acting like idiots to get host Monty Hall's attention so that they could play the game. CNN turned the debate into a LMAD-like spectacle, where they encouraged inanity and childishness for a forum where serious matters should have been taken seriously. And for the most part, it resulted in asinine questions as well, as the transcript reveals.

Why should the Republicans further endorse this practice? It won't stop by blithely jumping into the next debate. Someone will have to point out that the emperor has no clothes, and that won't happen if the GOP panders to YouTube and give the same people another chance to stage another round of Monty Hall forums rather than town hall forums.

We don't have to embrace talking snowmen in order to embrace the Internet. In fact, most of us who work daily in politics on the Internet should take offense to that notion. Patrick asks if the GOP is afraid of interacting with "real people", but that's not what CNN selected from the YouTube entries -- they selected a talking snowman. How many more LMAD entries will get on the air next time?

Even Joe Biden was disgusted with the proceedings by the time the last debate ended.

The Republican candidates should insist on major changes to the format if they agree to participate in the next debate. That should include a new selection team for the questions -- and if they really want to "embrace the Internet", perhaps they should insist on representatives from the blogosphere being a part of that process. Otherwise, CNN should pull the 86-year-old Monty Hall out of retirement and give up all pretense of serious debate.

UPDATE: Rick Moran disagrees, and switches from Frosty to the Wizard of Oz.


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Comments (22)

Posted by Jazz | July 27, 2007 7:27 AM

Too much of the response to the YouTube debates has taken the same tone as this analysis, Ed, though many go much further. And I wholeheartedly disagree with you. Everyone keeps coming back to the "snowman" question and acting as if that was the typical fare on display. I know you watched the debate, so don't you feel that this is an unfair representation? There were more than fifty videotaped questions asked and the majority of them seemed, at least to me, to be serious questions on the minds of the citizens posing them. They certainly varied in how well they presented themselves, their mastry of English, their camera skills, etc. but for the most part they were topics of concern to many voters phrased in their own voices.

Yes, CNN tossed in a couple of fairly silly ones, but why the heck not? Are we now so stodgy that there can't be any fun at all allowed in public debate? Everything must be somber, serious bloodsport? They had some fun. I wasn't offended at all, and I've long felt that the candidates need to lighten up a bit once in a while. Yes, I want them to be serious about the job they seek, but I want to see their more human side as well.

Did you notice that several of the questions selected were decidedly unfriendly to the typical Democratic agenda? The first example to come to mind was the one gentleman asking over and over again, "How can you just pull out of Iraq now?"

I think the questions selected did most definitely slant to the more liberal / Democratic agenda, but that was the audience. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and a chance to select questions for the GOP candidates primarily posed by Republicans and putting forth serious questions about issues of concern to them. (For example, there may finally be a question selected about immigration, which was MIA during the first one.)

And if they have a couple of snowmen or other silly bits to lighten the mood? I say bring it on. We could use to see some more of the sense of humor and human side of the GOP candidates as well.

Posted by lcd56 | July 27, 2007 7:39 AM

I agree with you, Cap. This is more of a joke than a serious inquiry as to the fitness of someone to be C-in-C or head of the greatest nation on earth.

One other thing. I wish everyone would stop referring to these spectacles as a "debate". They are not. They are simple question and answer sessions. A real debate consists of presenting your point of view and defending that point of view with facts and figures.

Posted by Jazz | July 27, 2007 7:44 AM

Oh, and a followup that I forgot to include but I think bears directly on this post... Putting up the use of the so called Town Hall forums by candidates on both sides does nothing, in my opinion, to replace the more "free range" type of questioning we're seeing in the internet based video questioning. First of all, I honestly beleive that anyone who so much as hints that the candidates (on BOTH sides) don't screen the people who are allowed in and to ask questions is being disingenuous. Hillary's team had several people kicked out of a recent stop she made here in upstate New York.

The most visible ones, of course, were the televised Bush town halls in the 2004 cycle, and frankly a lot of them made me ill. The people who got up to ask questions typically asked things like, "What can I, as an individual, do to help you in your heroic battle against our terrorist enemies, Mr. President?" and things of that sort. MSM moderators ask wrote questions and allow the candidates to dodge them, falling back on their poll tested talking points for answers. Town Hall questions are far too scripted and aimed at making the candidate look as good as possible.

What's missing from these YouTube debates, in my opinion, is having CNN get the submitters on the phone to ask follow-up questions when the candidates do their usual dodge and spin routine. (Which the Democratic candidates were doing with the usual flair during the first one, and the moderator did little to nothing to stop them.)

Posted by Captain Ed | July 27, 2007 7:49 AM


You're wrong, I think, on the second point. I've attended a couple of these, and the questions are very randomly selected by the raised-hands method. They actually produce better questions -- because no one wants to be seen as an idiot in front of their neighbors.

Posted by Bennett | July 27, 2007 7:52 AM

If Presidential candidates are now required to show up on Oprah or Dr. Phil or Letterman or SNL or The Daily Show --and apparently they are because so many of them appear on these kinds of shows-- I'm not sure I see much to sniff at in the CNN/YouTube giggle fest. It's hard to distinguish between serious political discourse vs. pure entertainment these days. Much of the former seems to morph into the latter, although perhaps unintentionally.

Posted by rbj | July 27, 2007 8:06 AM

A stupid-silly question from CNN could actually help a GOP candidate. All he'd need to do is quickly answer it, and then ask the moderator if CNN was going to start being serious in helping select the next leader of the free world. Be lighthearted enough to answer it, but then get serious.

Posted by Angry Dumbo | July 27, 2007 8:12 AM

RBJ nails it. There are no stupid questions, only stupid people who ask them. For a smart politician this should be T-ball. Rudi and Mitt can sit for all I care.

Posted by j | July 27, 2007 8:27 AM

Not sure about the You-Tube. I've read that CNN taped all the questions and answers then the politicians decided which ones would be aired. If true, the Obama answer on summits with thugs is even worse. If not true, maybe CNN screened the questions first. You can bet your last nickel that the questions posed to Republicans would be "trap" and rude questions our leftist media likes to put to Republicans, not the mostly puffball stuff they lob to Democrats. I'm tired of the 1-sidedness in the MSM. The best way around it is the townhall scenario. The "debates" are not debates, they're tv moments for the media and avoid the trap moments for the candidates.

Posted by TW | July 27, 2007 8:29 AM

If the GOP candidates cannot handle a snowman, how can they handle the terrorists? Pygmies.

The townhall format is staged in a friendly venue with a friendly audience that is carefully screened at the front door. A fraud.

So let the RNC have -some- say about the questions CNN selects.

But if it is just McCain and Ron Paul, that would be great television!

Posted by Spurlee | July 27, 2007 8:30 AM

The concern that by shunning the Youtube circus will cause some political damage assumes that the people who would be bothered by that actually get off the couch to vote. The data following the overwhelming MTV campaign shows that they enjoy the entertainment value of the process, but standing in line to vote is just too boring.

Posted by mrlynn | July 27, 2007 8:33 AM

I agree with Newt Gingrich: these 'debates' are nothing but amateur-hour auditions; the YouTube questions are just an added wrinkle on an already-silly procedure. Newt said he wouldn't put up with these cattle shows, and no one else should, either. They diminish both the candidates and the Office to which they aspire.

The candidates should insist on true one-on-one debates, 90 minutes, free-ranging, with just a moderator to make sure they have equal time. If no one but C-Span carries them, that's the public's loss. The Internet can make up for the commercial networks.

/Mr Lynn

Posted by biwah [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 27, 2007 8:57 AM

But if it is just McCain and Ron Paul, that would be great television!


Rudy and Mitt are citing the seriousness of the presidency but one suspects it is the seriousness of their own self-regard that they feel is threatened. And there would be some off-kilter questions (regarding, e.g., mormonism, dressing in drag, hunting ).

It is a bit silly and futile for a modern candidate to try to stay above the fray. The efforts to do so inevitably attract more negative attention than dealing with curveballs up front. People, and especially (I suspect) many fence-sitting voters, don't like being denied the more entertaining aspects of the campaign, given that the campaigns are being shoved down their throats over a year and a half!

If they're going to sit out the YT/CNN debate, they should come up with a credible alternative ore else, whatever their explanations, they'll look scared and insular.

Posted by Lightwave | July 27, 2007 9:01 AM

"Did you notice that several of the questions selected were decidedly unfriendly to the typical Democratic agenda? The first example to come to mind was the one gentleman asking over and over again, "How can you just pull out of Iraq now?"

It wasn't the forum that was hostile to the Democrats' Socialist agenda, but America itself. It was an experiment that needed to be done -- this site and others like it proves the internet has a place in American politics -- but the YouTube format is nothing more than populist junk.

Besides, the Dems got caught flat footed again and again by the questions, they either went deer in the headlights or spouted off talking points.

It was a "debate" the same way student council candidates "debate". I'm surprised nobody asked about putting better vending machines in the West Wing.

Posted by biwah [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 27, 2007 9:08 AM


It wasn't the forum that was hostile to the Democrats' Socialist agenda, but America itself.

In that case, a GOP YouTube debate should be a cakewalk, right? Ordinary Americans, cheering on their political champions?

Posted by GOP08_DOA | July 27, 2007 9:27 AM

I'm going to have to agree with the Captain here. It would be an unmitigated disaster to have the GOP presidential candidates face the YouTube generation head on.

Those dirty effin hippy liberals, gays, and black people (you know, constituents) are sure to bring up THE MOST humiliating topics for the republican candidates.

I can just see it now. Embarrassing questions will be chosen cavalierly by CNN pertaining to Guiliani's drag fetish and gay friendliness, Mitty's flip floppery and triangulation on nearly every issue, and McCain's leisurely stroll through a Baghdad marketplace and his love for president Bush's sham of a war.

The electorate is slightly more sophisticated with respect to the issues, due to the damn internets and YouTube. This is not good news for any republican with aspirations to be president of the USA.

Posted by Joel Lemieux | July 27, 2007 9:55 AM

I use to have compassion for individuals who were "brainwashed" by the likes of Bush/Chenney, "Rudi McRomney" and cousin "Freddie" Plus Dem Relatives "Obama" and "Hillary" (all of them CFR Globalist?)... However, now I can only feel sorry for them...

Posted by TMAC | July 27, 2007 9:58 AM

I think all the republican candidates should definitely submit to a U-Tube/CNN grilling. We all need to know which candidates wear boxers or briefs and if they get skid marks in them. We also need to know what they are going to do to keep the snowman from the dem dumbdown from melting, among other important things.

Posted by Continuum | July 27, 2007 12:22 PM

Definitely there should be no YouTube debates for the Republicans.

Next thing you know they'll be wanting to use telephones, television, radio, the Google, and that iPod machiney and all those other new-fangled inventions.

We Republicans are very happy living in the 19th century, so why should we have to adjust to all that cornfusin' new gadgets.

Funny to watch the Republican party live up to its reputation as the country-club white-haired, rich, white-man's only, blue-haired-lady type party of buggy whips and chewin' tabbaccy.

Are the Republicans really just living out their own Death Wish?

Posted by Don Singleton | July 27, 2007 12:30 PM

Your system still rejects trackbacks. My post is here

Posted by Only_One_Cannoli | July 27, 2007 12:33 PM

Curious how many other readers were surprised to know that lefty actor Danny Glover had a sensible political point to make.

It's apparently not the same Danny Glover.

Posted by Count to 10 | July 27, 2007 1:49 PM

I didn't even get to the snowman question on the transcript when I gave up reading it. There wasn't a single serious question--well, at least not one I would take serious. Slavery Reparations?
Every question seemed steeped in victimization. Interestingly enough, Hillary did a fairly good job of describing how the definition of liberal had been turned on its head (before ducking the question).

My vote would be for the candidates to take the risk on this one, and use it as an oppertunity to call out the loonies. The more the habitual Democrat voters see leftist loonies getting called out as such, the more likely they will come to there senses.

Posted by sheryl | July 27, 2007 8:08 PM

Mitt Romney was just on CSPAN moments ago and took a YouTube question, along with a plethora of telephone calls in CSPAN's standard format of Republican, Democrat and Independent phone lines.

He also said, due to his schedule, he is unable to attend the CNN/YouTube debate in Sept.

It's interesting, reading all the puffery today about how Mitt is some how afraid of YouTube and then I turn on CSPAN and there he is answering a YouTube question...NICE!

Classic....from a class guy!