Net Election

The Cyber-Debate That Wasn’t

Slate, the Industry Standard, and join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Debate junkies, come get your fix. No waiting around, no left out candidates. There’s one place where the debate rages on, day after day, with everyone invited. It’s called the “Rolling Cyber Debate”—overseen by Web White & Blue, a project of the Markle Foundation. It’s online from Oct. 1 up until Election Day. And it sounds like the future of politics. So how’s it working out?

So far, not so good.

Each day, Web White & Blue runs two big features on its main page. The first is the “Message of the Day” section, where candidates can soapbox, grandstand, pontificate … whatever suits them. Sadly, what suits them is posting press releases. One per day, one per candidate. While the campaigns must love it—a chance to spoon out daily messages unfiltered by the press corps—it’s hard to see much value in this for voters.

The other daily feature, the “Question of the Day,” fares no better. Here, intelligent queries from the public get answered with … more press releases—dredged up, tailored a bit, and pasted onto the site. Last Sunday, when a reader asked about involving our military in Africa’s ethnic battles, the Gore campaign responded with a position paper titled “Africa” and a second one titled “Military Involvement.” Gosh, thanks guys—take long to find those in the filing cabinet?

George W. Bush and Al Gore themselves are totally AWOL. It’s clear that campaign staffers write the entries, and there’s no voice or personality anywhere. All of which makes it hard to care. Who can get excited when the candidates are trotting out stunt doubles? Also, neither side’s using the Web to its full capabilities. Apart from a welcome message taped by Gov. Bush, there have been few audio or video posts.

Most disappointing, though, is the utter lack of engagement. For the first few days, the Bushies tore into everything the Gore camp said, with a satisfying ferocity. Wounded Gore-ites fought back, and it looked like we might see a battle. Soon, however, rebuttals died down, and the campaigns stopped bothering to snipe. Now we just get propaganda passing in the night.

“If one campaign uses the site aggressively, it forces the hand of the other,” says Doug Bailey, an architect of the debate. “But if neither does, there’s not much we can do. This debate will only be as good as the campaigns want it to be.” That’s a problem. “These are very careful people,” Bailey points out, and it’s a tight race “where both sides think they’ll win.” A new tool like this can mean opportunity, or risk. For now, it’s treated as risk.

This attitude could change, of course, but there’s a still bigger problem for the cyber-debate—one that won’t go away soon.

“What you want from a great exchange is dialectical progress,” says Michael Kinsley, Slate’s editor. “I concede a point, you concede a point, and the argument moves the ball. But that’s unthinkable in a presidential election. The press would accuse you of backpedalling or changing your position.” In the end, the problem with a cyber-debate is the problem with any presidential debate: “Because a serious argument will have qualifications and to-be-sures, it’s virtually impossible to have a serious argument.”

Web White & Blue shouldn’t lose hope. The site holds much promise. Yes, questions get answered with memos. But in a sense these are more thorough and accurate answers than the ones in town hall debates, where responses are also essentially by rote. True, the campaigns’ daily messages are crafted by staff. But no more so than out on the stump. And the third-party candidates (save for Nader, who hasn’t participated) are finally getting a voice. In fact, they’re going to town—rebutting everything in sight and taking great advantage of the medium. Pat Buchanan, at least, even seems to write his own entries (they bear his furious fingerprints).

Perhaps Slate’s experiments with online dialogue can offer some useful lessons. According to Slate editors, Web exchanges work best when they’re unmoderated and, not surprisingly, when participants write their own stuff. (Enforcing the latter would pose whole new problems for a presidential debate.) Also, Slate dialogues benefit from comments drawn in from “The Fray,” Slate’s bulletin board, which often fosters shadow conversations among interested readers. “If you could have a parallel public discussion alongside the debate, candidates might feel pressure to respond, to show what populists they are,” says Kinsley.

In the future, two trends might lend the cyber-debate some relevancy. First, greater access to broadband will make video clips worthwhile, as more people can easily download them. Bailey envisions a time when video press releases will largely replace print ones. Second, campaigns may eventually realize they’ve got a powerful tool in their hands. “Right now,” says Bailey, “it’s hard to expect them to devote significant time and energy to this. It would be great, but it’s not realistic.” Next time around, things could be different.