The Republican YouTube Debate

The Herald News printed my editorial piece today concerning the YouTube debate for the 2008 Presidential GOP Primary. It reinforces themes I have discussed on this blog before, especially the need for Republicans to understand and embrace technological advances in campaigning.
GOP debates YouTube format
by GEORGE AJJAN - Sunday, August 26, 2007

Several weeks ago, the eight Democrats contending for their party's presidential nomination assembled at the Citadel in South Carolina for a first of its kind debate – in which ordinary citizens were allowed to ask questions using self-recorded video clips, disseminated through the popular video Web site YouTube. While some of the questions were lighthearted, others were refreshingly blunt, stripped of the politically correct veneer typically brushed on by mainstream media.

As for Republicans, their turn to face the video screen had been scheduled for Sept. 17 in Florida. But less than half of the GOP contenders had agreed to participate, while others became squeamish after seeing their Democratic counterparts in the YouTube format. Rudy Giuliani hinted he would not commit to the debate, with a source from his campaign saying, "We have serious scheduling issues. That's prime fund-raising time." Mitt Romney also attributed his reluctance to scheduling, but added, "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman," referring to a creative question about global warming posed during the Democrats' debate.

As a New Jersey-based Republican activist and blogger who has been urging a stronger embrace of political technology by GOP candidates and organizations here in the Garden State, I found the reluctance on the part of the so-called "front-runners" in the Republican presidential contest to participate to be disheartening and frankly, disturbing. Thus, I was one of many signatories to a "Save the Debate" petition that played a decisive role in getting the debate rescheduled for Nov. 28, to alleviate any "scheduling issues." That is encouraging news, although participation from all the candidates has not yet been confirmed. (continued...)

The comments of those skeptical about the YouTube debates sadly exemplify many of the traditional and stereotypical shortcomings of Republicans. The GOP has got to shatter the image of country-club elitism that plagues the party. Giuliani's campaign prioritizing fundraising over a one-day commitment to appear before millions of viewers and answer tough questions directly from the electorate is deplorable and plays right into that regrettable typecast.

This is not just an esoteric concern; it is empirically demonstrated by many Republicans, who tend to prefer the cocktail-party chitchat of lavish fundraising affairs to rolling up their sleeves and walking neighborhoods to solicit actual votes. Giuliani's campaign tactic indicates this same mentality: money before people. We Republicans must work to change that.

Equally indicative of this disappointing attitude was Romney's principle reaction to the YouTube debate: grumpiness about a silly snowman, not exuberance over the opportunity to interact with voters and show them perhaps a different side to his candidacy. His remark indicates how Republicans must find a more positive consensus to attract voters. Outside of the enviable optimism in Ron Paul's campaign, lately it seems that negative energy is our primary motivation – anger toward illegal immigrants, revenge for terrorist attacks, etc. We absolutely must break the trend described by the late conservative guru Sam Francis, who cynically identified the drivers of successful conservative movements as "greed and hate."

As far as YouTube itself goes, the issue is not that national Republicans don't want to use new technologies. Both Giuliani and Romney have invested heavily in their online efforts and have specifically touted their embrace of YouTube as a campaigning medium. But their behavior seems to indicate the belief that the internet is a switch they can turn on and off, depending upon whether they're in the mood to communicate. But the internet is always "on," although it's not always "on your terms."

Until our party truly grasps that, we will continue to alienate voters and activists, especially young people for whom the internet is not "new," but an integral part of their political upbringing.

Declining to participate in the YouTube debates is inexcusable on the part of any Republican presidential contender, and GOP activists need to make sure the candidates hear that message loud and clear. After all, only several elections ago, Republicans seeking to portray former President Clinton as weak, cowardly, and out-of-touch with American public would bandy about the term "draft dodger."

Woe to the Republican Party if our own behavior makes us known in today's times as the party of "debate dodgers."

George Ajjan, a Clifton resident, is a Republican activist. He runs a blog at

O --- This article first appeared in the Herald News on August 26, 2007.