Playing with fire at the town hall debate?

Miz Michelle raises the specter of the embarrassing YouTube-sponsored debate during the Democratic primary, after which evidence emerged that the Clinton, Obama, and Edwards campaigns had all made use of planted supporters in the question-submitting audience, under the false guise of “undecided” voters.

John Dickerson at Slate is also wary, anticipating a tendency for audience members to grandstand.  He writes an article entitled “Beware of Ponytail Guy,” in a reference to the pony-tailed opening questioner at the town hall debate between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992.  The questioner, a “domestic mediator” name Denton Walthall, scolded the two candidates ahead of time against going negative during the debate, imploring them to treat the audience as they would their own children (he actually used the sentence, “Could we cross our hearts?”).  I remember watching that debate 16 years ago, and my gorge still rises at the memory of this man simpering for the cameras as if he were addressing 5-year-olds.

I think that’s a risk you take in a loose format like this one.  When the audience controls the questioning, the chances of a sideshow, or (as in the YouTube debate) a hijacking by a campaign mole, go through the roof.  If the news is to be believed, it appears the Democrats have a longer track record of plants in town hall debates, but John McCain has been pushing for this format for months now (he is said to thrive in a freewheeling environment), and Obama has been ducking him every step of the way since early summer.  Now that the Democrats have coalesced further behind Obama since McCain first proposed his series of town hall debates (i.e. there’s less chance now of Obama getting unfriendly questions from primary-opponent plants), we’ll see if McCain doesn’t look back thinking maybe he should have watched what he wished for.

However, Dickerson at Slate points out that there’s a factor at play this year that wasn’t present when Denton Walthall reared his pony-tailed head at the town hall in 1992 — the blogosphere:

On Tuesday night, if Son of Ponytail Guy asks a question, he can rest assured that he will receive a thorough going-over in the blogosphere. So I suggest all prospective questioners Google themselves, make sure they’re on good terms with their co-workers, and wipe clean their Facebook page.

May the best troll win!

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