Answering Questions From a Snowman: The YouTube Debate and Its Aftermath

“I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman.” — Mitt Romney

I promised some reflections about the YouTube presidential debate almost a week ago but something has kept getting in the way. I almost decided to forget about it but in the past few days, the issue has resurfaced as the Republican candidates are doing a little dance about who will or will not participate in CNN’s planned GOP YouTube debate in September. So far, only two Republican candidates have agreed to participate. I’ve been having fun challenging folks to guess which ones they are. The answer will be later in this post.

Some had predicted that the use of YouTube in a presidential debate was something of a gimmick or a cross-branding opportunity for CNN and Google. It was certainly both of those, but it may represent something more than that, a shift in the nature of public debates in the campaign process as profound in its way as the emergence of the Town Hall Debate format in the 1990s.

Let’s consider the classic debate format where established journalists, sworn to some degree of political neutrality, ask candidates questions. This format has some strengths and some limitations. In theory, the questions asked are well informed because the people asking them are focused full time on following the campaign and the candidates and understand what topics are most likely to establish the contrast between the political figures on the stage. At the same time, the questions asked are likely to reflect an “inside the beltway” perspective — that is, they reflect the world view of a specific political class which may or may not reflect the full range of issues that the American people want addressed.

The process maintains a certain aura around the political process: celebrity journalists ask questions of celebrity politicians in a world totally sealed off from the everyday experience of the voters. One consequence of this format is that the candidates tend to empty the questioner from the equation. One addresses the question; one ignores the person who asks the question.

This construct sounds more “rational” or “neutral” but it also makes it much easier for the candidate to reframe the question to suit their own purposes. There is no penalty for ignoring the motives behind the question because, in the end, the claim is that there are no motives behind the question. This has in the past gotten some political leaders in trouble. I am thinking, for example, of the famous moment while Michael Dukakis was asked how he would respond if his wife was raped and murdered and he offered a fairly bloodless critique of the death penalty as a matter of public policy. The questioner was trying to get at the human side of his perspective on the issue and he got criticized for being cold and calculating, yet the fact that he ignored the human dimensions of the question was in many ways a product of the presumed “neutrality” of the professional debate format.

In the 1990s, an alternative — the town hall meeting debate — emerged and Bill Clinton rose to the presidency in part on the basis of his understanding of the ways that this format changed the nature of political rhetoric. In the town hall meeting format, who asks the question — and why they ask it — is often as important as the question being asked. The questioner embodies a particular political perspective — the concerned mother of a Iraqi serviceman, the parent of a sick child who can’t get decent health care, the African-American concerned about race relations, and so forth. We can trace the roots of this strategy of embodiment back to, say, the ways presidents like to have human reference points in the audience during their State of the Union addresses — Reagan was perhaps the first to deploy this strategy of using citizens as emblematic of the issues he was addressing or the policies he was supporting and in his hands, it became associated with the push towards individualism and volunteerism rather than governmental solutions. These were “individuals” who “made a difference.”

What Clinton got was that in this newly embodied context, the ways the candidate addressed specific voters modeled the imagined interface between the candidate and the voters more generally. Think about that moment, for example, when George Bush looked at his watch during a Town Hall Meeting debate and this got read as emblematic of his disconnect from the voters. Contrast this with the ways that Clinton would walk to the edge of the stage, ask follow up questions to personalize or refine the question and link it more emphatically to the human dimensions of the issue, and then respond to it in a way which emphasized his empathy for the people involved. People might make fun of Clinton for saying “I feel your pain” a few times too many but this new empathic link between the candidate and the questioner shaped how voters felt about this particular candidate.

Clinton recognized early on the emerging paradigm of narrowcasting, using the town hall meeting in relation to specific audiences on specific cable outlets — for example, African Americans on the Arsenio Hall show, young voters on MTV, or southern voters on the Nashville Network. In each case, he was able to signal his knowledge of specific issues and respect for specific challenges confronting this constituencies. People today remember Clinton playing the sax on late night television; they forget that it came at the end of almost an hour of thoughtful discussion of race and class in America in the wake of Rodney King and the LA Riots at a time when the mainstream media was only interested in asking him about his sex life. No candidate has ever been as effective at Clinton at responding to the particularities of the town hall meeting format but it has emerged as a standard part of the campaign process ever since and for good reason, because there is both symbolic and substantive importance to how well candidates interact with these diverse constituencies.

There are some core limits to this format. The questions come in a context which is deeply intimidating to non-professionals and thus it preserves an aura surrounding the candidates. Only certain kinds of questions get asked because only certain issues are appropriate to this format. The questions get asked with a certain degree of awe even when the voter is skeptical of the answers they are receiving.

So, this brings us to the YouTube format which seems significant in a number of levels. First, the people asking the questions are speaking from their own homes or from other spaces that they have chosen to embody the issues they want the candidates to address. The language is more informal, the questions are more personal, the tone is less reverent, and the result forces the political candidates to alter their established scripts. (And of course, let’s not forget the role which CNN played in curating the set of questions presented. I was prepared to trash CNN for playing it safe but in fact, they chose some of the more provocative submissions here and these videos have emerged at the center of the controversy around the debate.)

here were moments early in the YouTube debate where the candidates were sticking to their sound bytes and talking points, despite the very different tone and context of this debate. More than anything else, this called attention to the gap between the ways everyday people speak and the lofty rhetoric of contemporary politics. What seemed relatively natural in a conversation between professionals felt truly disconnected from the YouTube participants. Then, as the evening went along, we saw the candidates one by one step out tentatively and then more assuredly onto thin ice, trying to find a new language by which to express their issues and to form a new relationship to the voters.

We certainly saw signs of the old townhall meeting format both in the style and tone of some of the more “serious minded” questions and in terms of the ways that the candidates were careful to address the person behind the question — as in the constant salutes to the servicemen. But something else was also occurring, as when Joe Biden offered his relatively acerbic and unguarded perceptions of the gun lover who called his automatic weapon his “baby.”

I was fascinated with the exchange about the minimum wage. One of the viewers asked the candidates whether they could and would live on minimum wage as president. Many of them were quick to agree to these terms — my hopes that this might become a reality have been shattered by the fact that most of the mainstream media never even reported on this round of questions, focusing instead on the more conventional disagreement between Clinton and Obama about whether they would meet with foreign leaders. Chris Dodd won points for his honest response that he couldn’t afford to support two college bound offspring on minimum wage, an answer that brought him closer to the level of the average middle class voter. And Obama carried the round by acknowledging that it would relatively easy for people who had money in the bank (not to mention free food and lodging) to live on mimimum wage and something different if you had no resources to fall back on.

By bringing the cameras into their homes, the voters were forcing the candidates to respond to the contexts in which they live. We saw this occur again and again — not just the well publicized cases of the social workers in Darfur or the cancer patient who removed her wigs, but in the more subtle ways that we get a glimpse of the domestic spaces in the background of most of the videos. The result was a debate which felt closer to the lived experience of voters, which took on some of the informality, intimacy, and humor one associates with YouTube at its best.

To my mind, one of the most interesting aspects of the broadcast came when the candidates were asked to submit their own YouTube style videos. Here, we had a chance to see how the campaigns perceived the properties of this new participatory culture. Some of the candidates did embrace the new political language (notably Chris Dodd and John Edwards, who both had fun with public comments about their hair) or tried for a more down to earth style (as in Hillary Clinton’s use of hand lettered and hand flipped signs, which unintentionally mirrored the style of one of the user-generated videos on the same program.) Many of the others simply recycled videos produced for broadcast media which came across as too polished for this new context. And Dennis Kucinich, the man who once brought a visual aid to a radio debate, seemed to confuse YouTube for a late night informercial. Oh, well. He demonstrates yet again that he is a nerd, perhaps even a dork, but not a geek.

All of this brings us to the issue of the snowman which seems to have caused Mitt Romney and many of the conservative pundits so much anxiety. Keep in mind that the snowman animation was used to frame a substantive question about global warming. In this case, then, it wasn’t what was being asked but how it was being asked or who was asking it that posed a challenge to establishment sensibilities. The snowman spot was a spoof of the whole process of having the questioner embody the issue and the whole ways in which children as used as foils for political rhetoric, as figures for imagined or dreaded futures for the society at large.

But it also represented a shift away from embodying issues and towards dramatizing them. I was surprised we didn’t see more or this — more use of video montages or projected images in the background, illustrating the topics in a way that went beyond what could be done by a live person standing in an auditorium during a live debate. I suspect we will see more such videos in future debates because they show the full potential of this new format. Now, keep in mind that political leaders have never had any problem dramatizing issues during their own campaign advertisements — even the use of personification or animation would not be that unusual in the history of political advertisements. Such images have long been seen as appropriate ways for campaigns to address voters, so why should they be seen as inappropriate as a means of voters to question candidates?

From the start, it had been predicted that Democrats would fare better in this new format than Republicans, just as historically they have fared better in the town hall meeting format. This format is consistent with the populist messages that are adopted by many Democratic politicians and the format itself seems to embody a particular conception of America which emerges from Identity politics (though, as my example of the way Reagan used something similar to focus on individual rather than governmental response, suggests that this is simply one of many ways that this format might be framed). So, is it any surprise that Romney and other GOP candidates are developing cold feet about appearing in this much more unpredictable format.

Not surprisingly, while Romney and Guiliani have been pulling back, McCain is pushing ahead. This approach is closer to the old “Straight Talk Express” bus that he used 8 years ago than anything he had embraced in this campaign cycle. Right now, the guy needs a miracle just to stay in a race and perhaps being willing to engage with the public via new media may represent the best way to set himself apart from the other frontrunners. The other GOP candidate embracing the format is Ron Paul, the former Libertarian Party candidate, and the Republican who so far seems to be have a much stronger base of support online than off, in part because the web offers more traction for low budget campaigns and anti-establishment figures.

Within the GOP, the debate about YouTube debates is shaping into a referendum about the role of web 2.0 in the political process. Here’s how Time sums up the issues:

Patrick Ruffini, a G.O.P. online political strategist, wrote on his blog: “It’s stuff like this that will set the G.O.P. back an election cycle or more on the Internet.” Democratic consultants are rubbing their hands together at being able to portray their general election rivals as being — as one put it to me — “afraid of snowmen” or simply ignorant of techonologies that many Americans use on a daily basis. Indeed, Governor Romney today, in the context of evincing concern over Internet predators, supported that suspicion: “YouTube looked to see if they had any convicted sex offenders on their web site. They had 29,000,” he said, mistaking the debate co-sponsor for the social network MySpace, which has recently done a purge of sex offenders from its rolls.

Hmmm. MySpace, YouTube, what’s the difference?