Republican presidential contenders flexed their world-leadership muscles during the first Twitter-only debate yesterday. Convened on 140Townhall.com, and moderated by sultry conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, six candidates, including Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, feverishly typed their defining principles into an exclamation-filled, acronym-crammed 179-tweet marathon of small-government cheerleading.
The Twitter event was, by any measure, a sound representation of modern presidential debating—which inadvertently speaks volumes about how little substance there is in so-called "debates." The sorry truth is that the constraint of 140 characters did not oversimplify the arguments put forth by these candidates at all.
For instance, during the previous CNN GOP debate, Congresswomen Michele Bachmann had this to say about President Obama's heath care plan:
"Thank you, John. Sylvia, thank you for that great question. I was the very first member of Congress to introduce the full-scale repeal of Obamacare. And I want to make a promise to everyone watching tonight: As president of the United States, I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare. It's a promise. Take it to the bank, cash the check. I'll make sure that that happens.
This is the symbol and the signature issue of President Obama during his entire tenure. And this is a job-killer, Sylvia. The CBO, the Congressional Budget Office has said that Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs. What could the president be thinking by passing a bill like this, knowing full well it will kill 800,000 jobs?
Senior citizens get this more than any other segment of our population, because they know in Obamacare, the president of the United States took away $500 billion, a half-trillion dollars out of Medicare, shifted it to Obamacare to pay for younger people, and it's senior citizens who have the most to lose in Obamacare."
In a display of dizzying efficiency, Bachmann managed to crystallize her position and essential statistics into a digital space 1/10th the size (99 characters vs. 1,015).
As another example, take Senator Rick Santorum's small government argument. When CNN moderator John King asked about whether he could defend a fellow Republican's "optimistic" position about being able to grow the economy at a 5 percent pace, Santorum responded:
"Yeah, I think we need a president who's optimistic, who has a pro-growth agenda. I'm not going to comment on 5 percent or 4 percent. What we need is a — is an economy that's unshackled.
And what's happened in this administration is that they have passed oppressive policy and oppressive regulation after — Obamacare being first and foremost. The oppressiveness of that bill on businesses — anybody that wants to invest to get any kind of return, when you see the regulations that are going to be put on business, when you see the taxation.
Throw on top of that what this president's done on energy. The reason we're seeing this second dip is because of energy prices, and this president has put a stop sign again — against oil drilling, against any kind of exploration offshore or in Alaska, and that is depressing. We need to drill. We need to create energy jobs, just like we're doing, by the way, in Pennsylvania, where we're drilling 3,000 wells this year for gas, and gas prices are down — natural gas prices are down as a result."
Santorum's Olympic feat of brevity distills his small-government argument with just as much precision, wisely substituting political hyperbole for a more eloquent exclamation mark. In the last few seconds of his remarks, citizens were treated to an interesting tidbit about energy, but nothing meaty enough to differentiate himself from other conservative candidates or convince an audience member who didn't already believe in "drill baby drill."
Not all of the Twitter questions were political softballs. When @Secupp asked:
Herman Cain typed:
While you could reasonable guess that Twitter's shackling 140 character limit caused his obfuscation, here was his answer to the exact same issue on CNN:
"It starts with making sure we understand the problem, which I don't think we did. We didn't have the intelligence. Number two, is it in the vital interest of the United States of America? If the answer is no, then we don't go any further. If it's not in the vital interest of America, To paraphrase my grandmother, with the situation in Libya and many of these other situations, they're not simple situations. It's a mess. It's just an absolute mess.
And there's more that we don't know than we do know, so it will be very difficult to know exactly what we do until, like others have said, we learn from the commanders in the field."
S.E Cupp's competent Twitter moderation revealed just how little substance there is in modern presidential debates.
American debates were not always so averse to disagreement and prone to demagoguery. Describing the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1854, author/historian Neil Postman wrote,
On October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln's turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed..."
Equally as perplexing, Douglas once politely admonished a crowd for rewarding one of his arguments with applause. He said, "My Friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgement, your understanding, and your consciences, and not your passions or your enthusiasms."
But, perhaps, in the 21st century, citizens do not have the appetite for a debate mini-series that commands as much attention as a season of Jersey Shore. If a series of talking points are all that the audience has time for, than perhaps Twitter is a more efficient evolution, making the 20th century model of presidential "debates" as antiquated as the television on which it is broadcast.
[Image: Flickr user The Daring Librarian]