Billed as the first-ever Twitter debate for presidential candidates, a handful of Republicans took to their keyboards this afternoon answering complicated policy questions in tiny 140-character tweets. Surprise! It was not particularly edifying. "Who knew they could get shallower AND slower-paced than a TV debate?" tweeted debate observer John Tabin. It was, however, a somewhat innovative experiment, and that deserves some praise right off the bat. The event was sponsored by TeaPartyNet with conservative commentator S.E. Cupp moderating and fielding questions. Observers could follow the debate at 140Townhall.net which provided a filtered stream of tweets with just the debate participants. Laying down some ground rules, event organizer Andrew Hemingway told The New York Times that candidates are limited to three tweets per response. By and large, everyone obeyed the protocol. But here's what went wrong:
The introductions Definitely the most awkward (and amusing) stage was the moment Republican candidates were asked to introduce themselves. Given the constricting rules, very serious presidential candidates were forced to define their raison d'etre in a kind of grownup lol-omg-speak replacing words with letters. Here are a few examples from Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann:
The speed Twitter is generally championed for its immediacy and spontaneity, not for its depth of discourse. This afternoon, none of those traits were on display. At the outset, the introductions dragged on as it appeared uncertain if a given candidate was finished explaining himself or herself. McCotter's introductory tweet, for instance, just kind of sat there for minutes while nothing else happened. Cupp gave a brief apology for the delays. "Thanks, candidates. And apologies for slow updates. The site has (happily) been inundated. That concludes opening statements."
The format The big question this experiment posed was what happens if you force candidates to boil down answers to tiny tweet-size solutions. The answer? They've been doing this their entire political careers. It's called a soundbite. So rather than putting them in some sort of spontaneous environment, they were quite at home. Politicians like Newt Gingrich and others just churned out boilerplate rhetoric everyone's been hearing for months:
As Slate's Dave Weigel put it: "Can you guys answer some easy questions by summarizing your talking points?"
Ideological diversity Unfortunately, a number of candidates were not present, mainly Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty. That left Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, and Thaddeus McCotter. With that crowd, there was almost nothing you could actually define as a disagreement, and thus the experiment wasn't much of a "debate." The only question that raised differing answers was whether the candidate would've invaded Libya, where everyone said no except former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who responded somewhat vaguely saying "Not with conventional forces. @140townhall."
What went right The folks over at TeaPartyNet did do some things right. Unlike President Obama's Twitter Town Hall boondoggle this month, this debate actually did fully utilize Twitter, having candidates respond on the service instead of simply fielding questions from the Twitterverse. Watching the candidates respond in a clean, noise-free, stream was definitely a new experience (even if the responses were boilerplate). Another cool feature was how they displayed debate statistics such as how many times the candidates were retweeted or mentioned. For those metrics, Bachmann won for most mentions, with 1,238, Cain won for retweets, with 1,211, and Bachmann won for most followers added, with 634. Congrats, candidates! (condolences for those who had to watch)