The Republican reluctance to engage in the scheduled September YouTube debate has created a fierce debate in the blogosphere, including something of a civil war at Hugh Hewitt's Townhall blog. Hugh himself has adamantly insisted that Republican candidates eschew the substanceless spectacle of the YouTube/CNN enterprise as a media setup. Patrick Ruffini, his co-blogger, insists that a refusal will show an unwillingness to engage directly with citizens. I argued that the YouTube debate amounted to a political equivalent of the game show Let's Make A Deal, while Rick Moran casts it as a test of political courage. Michelle Malkin and Mark Steyn agree with Rick, while Jasmius at Heading Right says the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot.
Clearly, though, we have competing interests here and everyone has something right in this debate. The Republicans have to do better in reaching out directly to voters. In fact, given the real and/or perceived hostility of the national media towards the GOP, it behooves the Republicans to find ways around the media filter. The question is whether the CNN/YouTube structure allows them to do it.
The flaw in pursuing the debate as it CNN structured it for the Democrats is that CNN chose the questions. Even Joe Biden complained about that selection during the debate, calling the final question -- a demand for each candidate to say one thing good and one thing bad about the candidate to their left -- a "ridiculous exercise" as he answered it. A review of the transcript shows that the actual questions held little substance and gave little information to voters about the candidates or their positions.
So what's the solution? How can we engage voters in a national forum through the New Media, while keeping the debate substantive and serious? I have a simple solution: have CNN cede the editorial/selection process to the New Media, in the form of the blogosphere.
CNN would ask bloggers to form a committee to review the YouTube entries. Since this debate is a Republican primary event, the bloggers should probably represent that segment of the electorate -- primarily Republicans, but perhaps with independent/centrist representation as well. The committee would review all of the YouTube entries and narrow them down to around 20, through whatever process and criteria to which these bloggers agree. They would also agree to the order in which the questions would be asked.
How does this solve the argument? It removes CNN from any responsibility for the question selection, shielding them from bias allegations. It puts the onus on the New Media to act responsibly in its question selection. This mechanism truly would make the candidates accountable directly to the people who will vote for them in the primary races. The candidates would have no excuses to avoid this debate, either.
CNN has engaged the blogosphere in innovative ways before. If CNN and YouTube agree to this process, I would find the result fascinating -- and expect full participation from Republican candidates.
UPDATE: Some interesting reactions around the blogosphere. Allah says that CNN wouldn't believe that Republican bloggers would allow tough questions -- but even a cursory read around the blogosphere should be instructive to that point. We spend a lot of our effort ripping the existing candidates on various policies, and I don't think we'd see a lot of softballs, at least not in a primary debate.