Plant Life

As if rival campaigns weren’t enough, presidential candidates have a new enemy to worry about: Audience members.

This weekend, the Clinton campaign fessed up to prompting a college student to ask Hillary a question about global warming. Sounds harmless enough—global warming comes up on the campaign trail all the time. But the actual exchange sounds particularly canned :

Student: “As a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming How does your plan combat climate change?
Clinton: “Well, you should be worried. You know, I find as I travel around Iowa that it’s usually young people that ask me about global warming.”

The backstory became public Friday when the student told the Grinnell newspaper that “One of the senior staffers told me what [to ask].” Another former audience member, Geoffrey Mitchell, recently came forward as well, telling FOX news how last April a campaign worker prompted him to ask about Hillary’s position on funding the Iraq war. Clinton told reporters that any planted questions were “news to me” and that they will “certainly not be tolerated.”

These incidents highlight what seems to be a growing problem for candidates, and particularly Hillary: audience participation. Last month, Ted Bowman, a man from Iowa who saw Hillary speak about Social Security, asked Clinton after her speech whether she really opposed lifting the cap on Social Security taxes. She told him she might consider it, directly contradicting what she had just said publicly. After Bowman complained to the AP, the Obama campaign drafted him to testify to Clinton’s apparent dishonesty.

You can see how a campaign becomes paranoid. Nothing is private, every quip is on the record, and every audience member is a potential oppo researcher. As a result, you get ugly interactions like the one between Clinton and Randall Rolph, the Iowa audience member she accused of being a plant for another campaign. Rolph responded angrily, and Clinton apologized. It makes sense that the campaign, wanting to avoid a repeat scenario, would try to control Q&A sessions. It’s a downward spiral of artificiality, and it makes for stiffer candidates, blander quotes, and about as much spontanaeity as an assembly line. But most importantly, it makes audience members and candidates mutually suspicious. Look for Obama and Edwards to crank up the “trust” rhetoric another notch, if that’s even possible.