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Smile, Candid Camera Is Good For Democracy?

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
I hate to say "I told you so," but … I told you so. The seemingly endless controversy over Senator George Allen's "macaca" comment directed at his opponent's digitally-armed campaign worker has brought this discussion to a boil. How will the now-constant presence of digital cameras change the way politicians behave? If you read today's CW Nevius column in the San Francisco Chronicle, you might think it won't have any impact at all:
Is this the result of a Big Brother society in which everyone is subject to the prying lens? Has the new video world perverted the political process? Nonsense, the experts say.

"This will be better for the voters and better for democracy,'' says Steve Scully, political editor for C-SPAN, which pioneered the idea of airing raw footage of candidates. "It is impossible for the candidate to be scripted all the time. Your personality is going to come through."

With all due respect, I think the "experts" are wrong. Scully can say that because C-SPAN has run thousands of hours of unedited footage featuring presidential candidates glad-handing and speaking to various groups with very little negative fallout. An exception came recently when Senator Joe Biden was caught in his own "macaca" moment when he discussed the monopoly held on 7/11 and Dunkin' Donuts franchises by Indian immigrants. The comment was posted on YouTube and sent all over the Web, giving everyone the opportunity to pile on. Do you think every other prospective presidential candidate didn't take notice of that? That they're not going be a little more conscious of those C-SPAN cameras the next time they see them?

Another argument in the Nevius piece is that audiences and voters won't reward candidates who are tightly scripted to avoid these types of gaffes. To paraphrase our president, they want to look into a candidate's eyes and take measure of his or her soul. They want someone who's human, with character, not a robotic talking point machine. Really? Take a quick glance at some of the nominees both parties have put up recently – President Bush, Bob Dole, Al Gore and John Kerry. None won the nod based solely on their charisma, they won because they had institutional advantages over their competitors. In each case, their opponents arguably stirred more passion among parts of their bases -- and generated more controversial moments.

This argument is taking place in other venues as well. Over at Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas sees this as part of the movement to allow "people" to re-take political power and says this about the Nevius column:

Accountability. It's not something politicians, of any stripe, are used to dealing with. But the rules are changing. YouTube is the greatest netroots tool since blogs, and potentially even more transformational for American politics.
On the NBC "Nightly News" last night, correspondent David Gregory visited this issue and highlighted this soundbite from Time.com's Ana Marie Cox: "The difference here is that politicians will get caught more but shouldn't people who do stupid things be held accountable for them?"

I doubt there are many people against "accountability" but I fail to see how this trend really accomplishes that. If it means playing "gotcha" with a slip of the tongue or an ill-mannered comment made during the 40th day of non-stop talking then, gee, we sure are holding those politicians accountable. If it means getting answers and explanations for slightly bigger things like, say, how the war in Iraq has been run or where all that pork-barrel spending is going, two weeks devoted to "macaca" isn't going to get us very far.

Politicians and the professionals whose business it is to get them elected will adjust to this new world in two ways. The first will be to become more cautious and reliant on regurgitating focus-group-tested campaign slogans. They'll resist the urge to let fly a barb or joke that isn't safely sanitized and mostly ineffective. They'll also continue to stalk their opponents at every turn, looking for that one slip-up that may turn into a three-week campaign issue. And then they'll turn to the campaign's staff, supporters and hangers-on in an attempt to find the same. And we'll be right where we are today – sidetracked.