Reality Bites

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

With the 2008 campaign in high gear some folks would like real debates to go along with it. Last week's CNN/YouTube debate tinkered with technology in hopes of eliciting more spontaneity and substance but Democratic candidates for President weren't so easily tricked.

Maybe you missed the debate -- got home late, turned on the set and were half an hour into America's Got Talent before realizing you had the wrong show. It happened a lot. In overnight ratings, NBC's 'reality' show beat CNN's 'reality' show 5 to 1.

It must frost Dennis Kucinich that Jerry Springer hosts America's Got Talent. In 1977, Kucinich and Springer were mayors of Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio. When Kucinich wouldn't privatize a local utility, vengeful bankers called in city loans. He got run out of town, was named one of the ten worst mayors in history and in 1982 reported an annual income of $38. Auditors later said his principled stand saved his city $200 million.

Springer's story has a different arc. When a prostitute was found with one of his personal checks, he apologized profusely, got re-elected, then left politics and wound up a TV news anchor. When Phil Donahue retired, Springer got his show and spruced it up a bit. For that and stints like America's Got Talent, he's on his way to having $200 million of his own.

The "CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate" -- "America's Got Problems" would have been a catchier name -- spruced up the presidential debate format with videos shot by average, albeit audio-visually gifted voters. Host Anderson Cooper was on hand merely to introduce clips and cut off candidates.

I'm not the best judge of entertainment -- I chose Kucinich over Springer -- but if it's entertainment you want, it was a bit of breakthrough. Clips ranged from a melting snow man (global warming) to a middle-aged lesbian couple (marriage) to a man cradling his "baby," an assault rifle as big as himself, musing about, you guessed it, gun control. Compared to a panel of TV talking heads it was riveting stuff, but so's the food network.

Pundits say voters yearn for authenticity. That's bad news for candidates who appear less real in person than their questioners do on video. No candidate was as strong on health care as the cancer victim who removed her wig or as eloquent on Iraq as the father who made his plea for peace before flags that once draped his father's, grandfather's and son's coffins.

Herein lay the value of the videos: They remind us that suffering is real, so we need politics and politicians to be real too.

The problem is voters aren't good judges of what's real. Take George Bush, a New England blue blood via Andover, Yale and Harvard. His dad's pals bailed him out of a string of business flops. He got rich off the public, got elected governor -- barely a part time job in Texas -- and ran for president. The year before the big race he bought 1,600 acres of parched prairie, to give his new political persona some context and dimension.

So many voters mistook Bush for a real entrepreneur, governor and rancher that the Supreme Court was able to appoint him president. As fine a thing as authenticity may be, voters may be the last people to send looking for it. Better they evaluate policy, except that would require real effort, needing real, not just virtual citizens.

Thus the search for quick technology and format fixes. There may be something to web root democracy but the debate was poor proof. CNN decided the questions, who got to answer them and how long they got to talk, reminding us that virtual democracy is still just that-- virtual, meaning "looks like," not "same as."

The debate opened with a query from Zach Kempf of Provo, Utah, who scolded one and all for "the platitudes and the stuff we're used to hearing" before meekly asking "How will you be different?" That got him enough platitudes to fill a high school yearbook.

People in taped videos can't ask follow -up questions, not that anyone else does lately. Thus leading Republicans use their debates to feign agreement with their evangelical base on abortion, stem cells and creationism, Democrats use theirs to feign disagreement with one another and everybody gets away with it.

A good example was the flare-up between Obama and Clinton. The question was whether in their first year in office they'd meet with a rogue's gallery of the world's worst heads of state. He said yes; she said only with the right deal. Later, she called him naïve. He compared her to Bush.

He isn't naïve. She isn't Bush. Bush won't talk to any of the leaders in question under any circumstances. Under the right circumstances Obama and Hillary will talk to all of them. End of real debate.

We have virtual debates of virtual issues. We parse style, from which we try to read character. We then project candidates' agendas, but it is all our imagining. We'd be better off going at it another way; that is, inferring character from whatever we can extract from the candidates about their agendas. A good man or woman will likely be the one with a good plan for getting us out of Iraq.

For all our technology we know little more than the Cleveland and Cincinnati voters of thirty years ago -- maybe less. If anyone says anything new or brave, like Kucinich in Cleveland or Howard Dean in Iowa, we run him out of town. One reason candidates don't want real debates is that they suspect voters don't want them either

Reviving low-tech innovations like tough follow-up questions and direct candidate exchanges would help, but we won't have real debates unless we insist on them. If the debates we have now are what we want, let Jerry Springer moderate them and give Dennis Kucinich a crack at America's Got Talent, as an award at last for civic virtue.