140 Characters and No Character: The First Ever Twitter Debate

Jake Laperruque

Last week the Tea Party website The Tea Party.net conducted the first ever Presidential Twitter Debate.  Actually, according to the moderator its title was “Twitter Pres debate” (got to save that character space!).  The debate was conducted fully on Twitter; all questions were posted on Twitter by the host site, and candidates gave their answers entirely on Twitter.  The link to the full debate is here.

The Tea Party site is owed credit for managing the event well.  As simple as Twitter seems, organizing a variety of separate feeds into a single chronological stream to simulate conversation can lead to a host of problems.  However, no noticeably technical issues occurred.  The discussion went up in real time without a hitch, and gave the appearance of an actual presidential debate.  And yet, if you look at the content, it becomes clear that this “debate” in no way deserves the title.

The first major problem with this forum is an extension of the basic criticism of Twitter – with only 140 characters, it’s hard to say anything of substance.  This is fine for basic microblogging to show what topics are “trending” across the country, but it doesn’t make for a very meaningful elaboration of an individual’s qualifications to be President of the United States.  Take this opening statement for example:

@140townhall Great to be w @thetea Party_net. I am running for pres because Obamacare threatens the soul of America”

That’s not exactly a bold vision for the future.  And it’s not just the canned opening lines.  The questions and answers are so slimmed down that they don’t even measure up to sound bites.

Let’s look at the responses on the all-critical issue of raising the debt ceiling (the following are all full answers):

Moderator: Question 1: As president, how will you avoid continually raising the debt ceiling?

Newt Gingrich: We don’t need Obama’s “balanced approach” (code for raise taxes). We need a balanced @140townhalltownhall

(Ok . . . that doesn’t really make any sense. I’m not even sure if that second line is an actual sentence.)

Rick Santorum: Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment and work for its ratification across the country!

(Love the enthusiasm, but your policy proposal consists entirely of passing a Constitutional amendment that will never pass?)

Herman Cain:  @140townhall As President, I would focus on restructuring entitlement programs instead of reshuffling them.

(Wait, is reshuffling an option?  Quick – have we checked how much money that would save?)

Michelle Bachmann: .@140townhall Only way to avoid future increases is fund. change the way we spend. We must #cutcapbalance and repeal Obamacare.

(Policy in the form of hashtags – brilliant!)

This is the most important issue of the year, and these individuals are vying to lead our country.  I want to know why they form their policies around a Balanced Budget Amendment that has no chance of passing.  I want to know why they aren’t worried that cutting spending will stunt growth and pull us back into recession.  And, I want to know how they would respond as President under their Balanced Budget system if another economic crisis occurred, requiring – as in 2008 – immediate action with costs far beyond our revenues in order to prevent global economic collapse.  I want substance, but in this form of discourse I’m never going to get it.

Perhaps even worse than the lack of concrete policy is the loss of intangibles; with the debate composed of 140 character texts, we get no sense character from the candidates themselves.  Compare the Twitter debate to this classic exchange involving George W. Bush and Bill Clinton during the 1992 election:

In four minutes, you see everything you need to know about why Bill Clinton knocked H.W. Bush out of office, and it had little to do with content.  Bush was awkward, apathetic, and clearly could not relate to the woman posing the question.  Clinton connected with her instantly.  It’s these spontaneous moments that make debates so valuable.  They show us when a president lacks the knowledge and expertise  to hold office.  They tells us when a candidate can’t handle the criticism. they’ll need to shrug off as our nation’s leader.  And, they demonstrate to us when an individual has the gravitas. to be our Commander-in-chief.   These are the moments we need in elections, and they’re something that Twitter #willneverprovide.

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