The Republicans think they’re too cool for YouTube.
Last Monday, eight Democratic presidential hopefuls participated in CNN’s first YouTube debate, widely heralded as a victory for technology and the common man alike. The candidates spent two hours answering directly to the people – represented here by two stereotypical hillbillies, a snowman puppet and a man with an unsettling fondness for his gun, among others.
Faced with similar prospects for their opportunity in September, the Republicans seem more excited about Bush’s colonoscopy than this debate. Rudy Giuliani’s campaign discreetly cited a scheduling conflict when excusing the former mayor from the event, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who previously said he would participate, questioned the debate’s seriousness and may remove himself as well. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) chose the least tactful path, telling C-SPAN that the format was not “respectful” enough for a presidential candidate – despite his admission that he did not actually watch the first debate.
Seven years after conservatives sold George W. Bush to the nation as “the man everyone wants to have a beer with,” they’ve decided that populism is out.
But does America agree? With last Monday’s YouTube debate came the opportunity for ordinary voters to ask their questions with slightly more frankness than the mainstream media would dare let slip.
A young man questioned former Sen. Mike Gravel’s statement in a previous debate, which asserted that those who fought in the Vietnam War had died in vain, and asked whether he would stand by his controversial words or “flip-flop.” A woman asked why she could buy the same Starbucks beverage in every state but they couldn’t standardize voting practices. And a man, who displayed the flags from the coffins of his father, grandfather and oldest son, asked how soon they could withdraw troops from Iraq and how many family members each candidate had serving in uniform.
If anything, it should be the Republicans answering these questions. For the past two terms, Bush has gotten away with his “good ol’ boy” bit while using simple language (“evil-doers”) and posing for photo ops on his ranch. But now that the Republicans have watched his approval ratings plummet and America tire of his act, they’re over-compensating with candidates who are acting, well, borderline elitist. They’re too serious to interact with voters who may pose their questions through puppets or raps – or maybe they’re too afraid of the questions themselves.
While the Democrats fell short of inspiring, they had one thing on the Republicans even before they watched the first video: They showed up. And since early on in this still-young campaign, that’s what they’ve been doing. Rather than ignorantly criticizing the 29,000 sex offenders on YouTube like Romney did (he meant MySpace, by the way), Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama created their own Facebook profiles. The Democrats are starting to figure out that appealing to the people means knowing your audience. And if the Republicans had figured that out this time around, they would know that turning up their noses to the YouTube debate only makes them look out of touch with technology and the Americans who use it.
In order for the Republicans to win back America’s favor, they need to prove that they’re not just going to have a beer with the voters and then stick them with the bill, as the current administration has done. In the end, the winner will be the one who finds a new way to show Americans that he or she is actually paying attention, and that way is ultimately through policy rather than public relations.
But, for now, it’s time for the candidates to rediscover the populism buried beneath their elitism.
Emmarie Huetteman is the summer associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.