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.