Will GOP Field ‘Cut and Run’ From YouTube Debate?

Posted: Jul 28, 2007 11:44 AM
Will GOP Field ‘Cut and Run’ From YouTube Debate?

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has more videos on YouTube than any other candidate -- in either party. Yet the former Massachusetts governor isn’t sure he’ll participate in the CNN/YouTube debate on Sept. 17.

“We currently have seven debate invitations over an 11-day span in September that are under consideration,” Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told the American Spectator. “No final decision has been delivered at this point.”

Why would Romney, a telegenic and articulate candidate, not jump at the opportunity to appear in this historic debate?

“I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader, referring to a videotaped question posed during the Democratic version of the CNN/YouTube debate.

While the snowman question wasn’t exactly the highlight of the debate, it certainly didn’t demean the presidency. Laugh it off or call it stupid, but don’t use it as a litmus test.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are the only two Republicans to commit to the YouTube debate. The rest of the Republican field, like Romney, has expressed dissatisfaction or stayed eerily silent.

The situation illustrates precisely the problem facing the right in a world constantly being shaped by technology. Unlike any other time in history, citizens today can have an impact by creating a video on YouTube or starting a fan page on MySpace. The political world is being flattened, as Thomas Friedman would say.

The growth of participatory democracy and citizen journalism is fueling some of the ambivalence among Republican advisers and political operatives. It makes things messy, and campaign pros hate “messy.” It creates unwanted distractions. It makes it harder to stay on message. But the times they are a-changin’ and everyone -- not just Democrats -- must adapt to the new world.

The GOP’s general unwillingness to engage fully online -- in terms of staffing and candidate activity -- helps explain why Republicans trail Democrats in everything from online fundraising to “friends” on social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. Yes, Romney boasts 231 YouTube videos, and Ron Paul has nearly 50,000 MySpace supporters. But these are exceptions to the basic rule that Republican politicos are woefully behind their Democratic counterparts in exploiting the possibilities of Internet-based politicking.

Bailing on the YouTube debate would be even more foolish than the Democrats’ refusal to participate in a debate hosted by Fox News. The immaturity of the left-wing blogosphere led to that debate’s demise, but the right-wing blogosphere is having the exact opposite reaction. Conservative bloggers want the GOP candidates to participate.

“This is a big mistake,” wrote Patrick Ruffini, the former Republican National Committee e-campaign director and a former adviser to presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani. “The Democrats are afraid to answer questions from Big Bad Fox News Anchors, and the Republicans are afraid to answer questions from regular people. Which is worse?”

Ruffini’s frustration led him to launch a petition to save the debate, which was instantly endorsed by the right’s most tech-savvy bloggers. Meanwhile, popular conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, no fan of YouTube herself, put it bluntly: “The CNN/YouTube Democrat debate was a circus. I said so. But Republicans shouldn’t sit out their turn. And conservatives shouldn’t abandon YouTube to the moonbats and jihadists. The GOP candidates should see it as an opportunity.”

This is a huge opportunity for Republicans, but they don’t seem to realize it. It’s no wonder young people say they are “profoundly alienated from the Republican party and its perceived values,” as a survey from Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner revealed.

If candidates aren’t even willing to talk to younger Americans via their preferred means of communication, how on earth will they change that negative perception?