Power to the people?

Are "town hall" and webcam debates any way to pick a president? Yeah, maybe.

Published November 29, 2007 4:56PM (EST)

Maybe it was the guy who asked about farm subsidies while chewing on an ear of corn with his mouth open. But as we watched Wednesday night's CNN/YouTube debate, we couldn't help thinking the thought we've thought a couple of times lately: There's got to be a better way to do this.

In theory, it's a good idea to have the people who would be president answer questions from the people who would elect them. In theory, the questions put to the candidates by the citizenry are going to reflect the concerns of "real people" better than questions crafted by reporters would. And in theory, the public's questions -- being a little less predictable than the ones candidates get from the press corps -- are more likely to catch the candidates off-guard and prompt some less scripted and more revealing responses.

But that's all in theory.

The problem is, there's no way to make the process as raw and as random as it should be while also ensuring that it's not a complete waste of time. Imagine if, instead of screening videos at the YouTube debates or questioners at the more traditional "town hall" debates, the networks simply let people line up at the microphones and fire away. Would you get a good cross section of Americans asking questions on a variety of topics? Would the questions be distributed to the candidates evenly or at least in some proportion to their electoral chances? Maybe. But you also might get 10 guys in a row asking Ron Paul about the Trilateral Commission, or a guy who goes on about the last election so long that somebody decides to Taser him, or an entire night's worth of questions about immigration reform.

Oh, wait, that's pretty much what we got last night, right?

And that's the problem -- well, one of them -- with trying to manage the randomness as the networks do. Yes, immigration is a big issue for Republican primary voters. But did it deserve more emphasis last night than Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, domestic spying, education and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina combined? And are all the Republicans who worry about immigration sort of creepy-looking fellows who lurk in the shadows of half-darkened rooms? We're sure the answers to those questions are no and no -- well, at least we're pretty sure -- but somebody had to choose from the 5,000 video questions that were submitted for last night's debate, and CNN picked what it picked.

Did CNN do a bad job of it? Well, we would have chosen differently. That said, the questions CNN selected did prompt more telling exchanges -- Mitt Romney against Rudy Giuliani on immigration, John McCain against Romney on torture, Romney against Romney on abortion and gays in the military -- than we've seen in some more traditional debates. Did the questions always get at issues that might matter to Republican voters? Probably not. Aside from McCain's insistence that he wants to "continue" the surge -- and what does that mean, exactly? -- we didn't hear much about what any of the GOP contenders would do about a war that has already claimed nearly 4,000 American lives.

Were some of last night's questioners Democrats masquerading as Republicans in the hope of putting the candidates on the spot or just making Republican citizens look stupid? Probably so. And we do know now that one of the questioners -- the retired Army general who asked about gays in the military -- is actually one of 50 co-chairmen of Veterans and Military Retirees for Hillary. The general may have been deceptive about his affiliation -- CNN says he claimed to be a member of the Log Cabin Republicans and never mentioned his ties to the Clinton campaign -- but he was straightforward about his views. Anderson Cooper says he wouldn't have used the general's question if he had known the truth.

But what's the rule? Is there one? Were last night's questioners supposed to be "real Republicans" or just "real people"? Are people who serve in an unpaid capacity on the Clinton campaign not "real people"? And if they aren't, is Grover Norquist? And if the difference between the general and Norquist, whose video question CNN aired last night, is that Norquist was straight about his political views, then did CNN have some obligation to check that Joseph from Dallas actually cared whether candidates believe that "every word" of the Bible is true?

If a young woman submits a few questions for consideration -- smart ones and a stupid one -- and CNN chooses the stupid one, is that dishonest? Is it unfair? Is it unfaithful to the notion that we're getting real questions from real people?

We don't have a lot of answers or solutions, at least not what you might call "top-down" ones. What we can say is that you've got to watch these debates with a mind on what they are. Unless the candidates are willing to take an infinite number of questions from an infinite number of Americans -- and unless we're willing to watch that -- these debates are necessarily going to be artificial constructs.

When they work right, the questioners are proxies for the rest of us, and their questions provoke answers and provide insights we wouldn't have gotten otherwise. We learned something about the candidates last night as we watched them say whether they own guns. And while others may differ, we were pretty interested to hear candidates who spend so much time appealing to the GOP's Christian base -- Mike Huckabee has said, "My faith is my life" -- trying to explain whether they believe the Bible represents the literal truth.

When they don't work, these town-hall, "Ask the candidate," democracy-by-webcam affairs are no better but probably no worse than traditional debates in which reporters ask the questions -- except that Wolf Blitzer probably couldn't have brought himself to ask Hillary Clinton whether she prefers "diamonds or pearls," and Cooper usually doesn't talk with his mouth full.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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