140 Characters, No Plot

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 20 2011 6:35 PM

140 Characters, No Plot

There were five winners in today’s first-of-its kind Twitter presidential debate. They were Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Buddy Roemer, and Mitt Romney. All of them are running for president, and all of them skipped the event, missing out on the most dignity-shredding, IQ-lowering pseudo-event of the campaign so far.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

The six candidates who participated did themselves no damage. They couldn’t if they’d tried. The debate, put on by TheTeaParty.net and a grab-bag of conservative groups, attracted an audience of devout activists, smart-assed liberals, and easily-ignored interest groups. They started early, tweeting thoughts @140townhall and clicking a button on the event website that informed fellow tweeters who they thought would win.

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“@TheHermanCain Will you be able to out debate Pres. #Obama as you did Pres. Clinton?” asked @BradMarston.

“@TeamBachmann You go!” tweeted LisaRichards124. “You're a real conservative & we need You! Keep speaking out & don’t give up!”

Shortly after 3 p.m., when the event was supposed to start, the conservative radio host Rusty Humphries began his live broadcast. His theme song was a straight rip/loving tribute of the theme from Team America.

RUSTY! Heck yeah! On the air, and he's gonna save the day, yeah!

It took a while for things to get going. Humphries killed time by interviewing the moderator, the author and TV pundit S.E. Cupp, about the meaning of it all.

“This is, I think, as substantive as you can get,” said Cupp. “You have a limited amount of time, a limit amount of text.”

What was wrong with the candidates that didn’t show?

“I question their judgment,” said Cupp. “They’ve got a captive audience.”

“I think some of this is cowardice,” offered Humphries. “Mitt Romney thinks he's going to sail to the nomination.”

That may have been it, but Romney has long opposed the idea that running for president means doing stupid things. In 2007, after he saw Democrats participate in a YouTube/CNN debate that featured a climate change question from an animated snowman, he balked.

“I think the snowman is, perhaps, a little less than the level of dignity you expected in a televised presidential debate,” Romney said.

It still beat the 140-character limit. The Twitter debate began with an ill-considered round of “opening statements.” One by one, the Republicans stated what they believed in three short bursts. (The ceiling for all answers was three tweets.) Here was how Michele Bachmann answered.

.@140townhall TY for this forum.  I'm running 4 POTUS 2 bring the voice of the people back to DC.  That voice requires fundamental changes. .@140townhall Fundamental change in how we spend #taxpayer $, & return to constitutional principles of ltd govt and personal responsibility. .@140townhall Obama failed. With ur help we can return the people's voice to the WH, restore fiscal sanity, & make Obama a 1 term president.

For anyone paying attention to Bachmann’s presidential campaign – besides all that stuff about the migraines – this was not new. It was the opposite of new. It was a collection of her talking points. All of the candidates did this, and they did this at a mind-bendingly slow pace, one by one.

“Oh man this is slow,” tweeted @giddy.

“Oh my god!” tweeted robbob25. “Come on already! I mean, I LOVE you guys, and especially S.E., but in the words of the First Lady, Let's MOVE! lol!”

It took around 30 minutes for the candidates to tweet their statements. The pace picked up after that, but that just produced another problem – questions that the candidates actually wanted to answer.

“As president, how will you avoid continually raising the debt ceiling?” asked Cupp.

“Cut, cap & balance is the immediate solution to prevent a recurrence of the debt mess,” tweeted Thaddeus McCotter, a congressman whose mysterious entry into the race was credited to his following on Twitter and the late night Fox News show Red Eye. He went for the more poetic, less comprehensible answers. “The long term solution is not to simply restructure Big Government into self-government for the 21st Century. All else is to but parley amidst the ruins of the Welfare State.”

“Can a president create jobs without expanding the role of the federal government?” asked Cupp.

“The opposite is necessary,” tweeted Herman Cain. “The president must make the government smaller and reduce regulations on businesses.”

“As President, if you could enact any policy to fix the economy without congressional approval what would it be? Be specific.”

“Repeal Obamacare,” tweeted Michele Bachmann.

“Refuse to spend the money to implement Obamacare,” tweeted Rick Santorum, not dreaming quite so large.

As this went on, the citizen tweeters tossed questions running from the banal to the sarcastic to the somewhat interesting. “To all the candidates, do you support enlarging the House of Representatives?” asked kevinboyd1984. “Yo Cain, can I have a pizza?” asked Zakai. The selection of citizen tweets was up to Cupp, and she chose the ones most like mid-day talk radio lay-ups.

“Do you support NLRB recent actions against Boeing in SC?”

“Do you have a plan to replace Obamacare, not just repeal it?”

Late in the game, Cupp gave Bachmann a question that threatened to make news. “Who’s talking about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes?”

“I am,” said Bachmann. “Simple. Fair. Flat. Everyone should pay something.”

This was interesting. Taken literally, Bachmann was proposing raising taxes on millions of people. She was rebutting the old “negative income tax” idea proposed by Milton Friedman, the basis of a lot of tax policy that favors the poor, and that conservatives support. It was more interesting than a lot of answers elicited at ordinary debates.

But this was a 140-character debate. The statement hung there like a dead fly on wallpaper; the talking points grinded on.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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