Debate candidates, formats and crowd control

We’ve already had plenty of opportunities to review the performances of the various GOP presidential candidates during last night’s debate in Orlando, with both AP and Ed weighing in on it. For what it’s worth, I didn’t think either of the frontrunners put on a stellar performance, with Perry probably getting the worst of it, but Mitt not doing himself many favors either. Let’s face it, when one of the highlights of the evening is Gary Johnson stealing a joke about dogs pooping on his lawn, we’re probably not seeing the next Gettysburg address unfolding before our eyes.

But it wasn’t so much the answers given by the candidates which caught my attention as the format decided on by Fox, the approach of the moderators and how large of a player the audience at these events has become. First and foremost, I think last night should provide more than adequate evidence that we can do away with this YouTube questioning format. As my friend Doug Mataconis quipped on Twitter, this format “sucked in 2008 and it sucks now.”

It’s a false construct, to begin with. There were tens of thousands of submissions and the moderators simply pick the ones that are closest to the questions they were going to ask anyway, so there’s nothing “spontaneous” or populist about it. The only difference is that the YouTube questioners generally either don’t do as good of a job asking or they include incendiary flares which professional journalists wouldn’t toss in. When the bells and whistles become the show, rather than adding to the important content, it’s time to retool the format.

On an unrelated note, I’m finding it harder and harder to understand why some of the moderators – particularly at Fox, of all places – select and structure some of the questions the way they do. They almost seem to take delight in egging on the audience to deliver sound bites which don’t do much to clarify the positions on the candidates on important topics, but deliver video clips for the Democrats to use next year.

The first example came when both Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich were tossed questions on unemployment insurance. Debating how long extensions should be is one thing, but the questions got shoved into rhetorical overload mode, seeming to dare the candidates to call for the elimination of unemployment insurance. It’s a trap, and of course the audience broke out in a poorly timed round of thunderous applause.

Does anyone honestly think that we’re going to do away entirely with a program designed to temporarily assist workers (who pay into the system, by the way) while they look for a new job after being displaced? Does this sound like a winning message that’s going to get a Republican elected?

That was followed up later by a question on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) which was filmed by a gay soldier serving in Iraq and given to Rick Santorum. Unfortunately, a couple of people in the audience actually began booing while the soldier’s clip was playing. Among the many results was more GOP infighting as GOPROUD almost immediately demanded an apology from Santorum. Even if it was only one or two yahoos who were hushed by other audience members, the damage was already done.

I don’t know a single person who honestly thinks that next November’s election is going to be determined by DADT, and even if you want to debate it as part of the agenda, there was no reason to pitch it in that fashion. When something like that happens, the response of the candidate -and even the subject itself – ceases to be the story and the media picks up on “the bloodthirsty Republican audience” as the story du jour. It happened last time with the death penalty and health insurance questions, and sure enough, when I began flipping through the morning news shows today, those two items were right up near the top of the list of what they were talking about.

Hey, look! Republicans are booing an active duty soldier and cheering for the elimination of unemployment insurance!

You don’t need to be Karl Rove to figure out this might not be a winning visual image.

There were a lot more negative responses to last night’s debate than positive ones from what I’ve seen, and it’s not because of a lack of good candidates. It’s the dog and pony show, sensationalized carnival atmosphere that the debates have taken on. It’s not helping anyone except DNC campaign operatives who splice up the clips to use for next year’s television ads. If the audience can’t restrain themselves to polite applause for answers they approve of, maybe it’s time to stop having live studio participation in these things. And it’s definitely time for a lot less gimmicks and a return to old fashioned, serious journalistic moderation of the events. This is a debate to determine the next GOP candidate to be leader of the free world, not the market launch of the next iPhone app.