Why Republicans fear YouTube debates
Last week, CNN and YouTube hosted a debate for the Democratic presidential candidates. It featured questions recorded on film by citizens and played live before the candidates, to which they responded. Some of the questions were ridiculous, and the most ridiculous were weeded out beforehand, but overall the result was interesting and received warmly by the candidates and the media. I was on vacation when it aired so I couldn't catch it, but because it was on YouTube, all the footage was made available later online, allowing me to catch up. The wonders of the age!
Of course CNN and YouTube want to hold another debate in September, inviting questions for Republican candidates and, of course, inviting all the Republican candidates themselves. But instead of all the Republican candidates leaping at the chance, only two have agreed thus far—Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Moreover, two have already publicly balked at the debate. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has said he has some vague, unspecified scheduling conflict in the future that will probably preclude his participation. Former Massachusetts Governor Willard "Mitt" Romney has publicly stated that he questions the seriousness of the debate format, and also has cast aspersion on CNN for bias, providing evidence that Governor Romney has never actually watched CNN.
I think the real squeamishness about the CNN/YouTube debate stems from the fact that it demands candor, and that Romney and Giuliani are not at their best when unscripted. Their images are very precisely managed; none of them wants to speak off the cuff, out of fear of having to address controversial questions or to defend their beliefs by speaking to actual citizens. This is the George W. Bush model of getting into office to enact a radical agenda by refusing to address any controversy at all. To put it bluntly, Giuliani and Romney know their carefully-managed images will come undone if scrutinized.
McCain and Paul, on the other hand, are very different. They handle extemporaneous speaking very well; it's their strong suit. They have no problem talking about what they believe in, so the CNN/YouTube debate would be a great boost for their campaigns. Yes, it's refreshing to see candidates speak their minds and opinions, and Paul and McCain will do this. Their campaigns are suffering right now, arguably because they don't manage their opinions and images as carefully as Giuliani and Romney: what you see is what you get. Paul's hard-core libertarian point of view (except where gay rights and abortion rights are concerned) will probably never appeal to mainstream Republicans. McCain's straight talk has appealed to mainstream Republicans in the past, but after selling out to the Bush administration, he's having trouble un-selling out and gaining the veneer of the devoted reformer that he used to have back in 2000 and 2001. Neither Paul nor McCain will likely win the nomination next year, but these debates would help them a lot in gaining traction.
In fact, Ron Paul would probably benefit the most. The most thoughtful questions would be directed toward him, since Paul has the strongest online base of all the Republican candidates—and probably of all the Democratic candidates, as well. Zealous YouTube regulars would ask him the lion's share of the questions, and the plain-speaking Paul would no doubt be in his glory. Sure, the editors would probably arrange things so that each candidate gets his fair share of questions, but since the quantity of questions for Paul would be greater, no doubt the quality would be, too.
What it all comes down to is this: the Republicans know they're starting out for the 2008 election with a built-in disadvantage due to the performance of their party over the past six years, so they realize they have to go negative. The Republican nominee will most likely be Romney or Giuliani, and they're trying to protect their carefully cultivated images by exposing them to as little candor as possible. On the other hand, the Democrats, no matter who their nominee turns out to be, will benefit from candor and exposure, so an open forum and debate would only serve their campaigns.
The only successful Republican candidates in the past twenty years have been ones who ran more on style than substance. That didn't stop George Bush Sr. from losing the 1992 election or George Bush Jr. from losing the 2000 election, but still, their empty strategies were what they relied on all along. Note that when Bob Dole tried to run his issue-oriented campaign that he was crushed utterly, just as were all the other Republican candidates who ran on substance over style in other elections: Phil Gramm, Pete DuPont, Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Donald Rumsfeld, Steve Forbes, Bob Smith, Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer... and, of course, John McCain. After watching Bush père and Bush fils win while Bob Dole lost, Giuilani and Romney seem to be thinking, "Why mess with success?" Sure, it cheapens politics, but hell, that's never stopped anyone before, has it? (The Bushes each won one and lost one, but theirs is currently the best formula a right-wing Republican has going.)
This just drives home just how depressingly hollow the Republican Party has become (as if its radical lurches rightward weren't already bad enough.) I'm sure I wouldn't consider voting for Giuliani or Romney even if they were candid about their beliefs—which is probably how a lot of other people feel, too. So, at the end of it all, who can really blame them for not standing for anything?