The Corner

Gotcha! The Asinine Politics of YouTube

The New York Times reports:

AMHERST, N.H. — Aaron Fielding quietly stalks his prey — Republicans — with his video camera, patiently waiting for a political moment worthy of YouTube.

At 27, he is a full-time “tracker” for American Bridge 21st Century, a new Democratic organization that aims to record every handshake, every utterance by Republican candidates in 2011 and 2012, looking for gotcha moments that could derail political ambitions or provide fodder for television advertisements by liberal groups next year.

The organization has hired a dozen professional trackers like Mr. Fielding, outfitted them with the latest high-tech cameras and computers and positioned them in key states where Republican candidates are busy chattering away to voters. If all works as planned, incriminating moments captured by American Bridge will quickly become part of the political bloodstream.

Combined with a team of 20 researchers in a Washington “war room” that has a large rack of computer servers, the effort is part of a push by Democratic groups to bolster their opposition research. Republicans also have trackers, but so far have not assembled the kind of centralized video archive of political caught-on-tape moments that their rivals envision.

This trend has concerned me for a while, mostly because the prevailing attitude towards “gotcha” moments seems not to be one of cool circumspection, but of automatic acquiescence in the odd notion that if a political candidate makes a mistake, then his entire platform collapses as a result. This is unreasonable. Who among us has not  misspoken? Find me the person who hasn’t made a factual error, pronounced a word wrong, lost his temper a little, or made a joke that was never going to be taken correctly out of context. 

This is our culture now, and we will have to live with it. But it is worrying, because it betrays a tendency to punish those in public life for momentary transgressions, and also a belief that their positions should be ossified. It is as if there is an inherent virtue, in politics, in never changing your mind. 

Let’s presume for a moment that the Internet had always been a feature of Western life, and thus there had been “gotcha” videos of John Adams and Winston Churchill rolling around the Internet in their lifetimes. Would they ever have reached the vital heights that they did? I doubt it. John Adams initially refused to agitate for revolution, saying that he was “for the law” rather than independence, and that until there was a sincere case that the existing ties had been corrupted, he would not counsel their severance. He famously defended the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, despite the obvious dangers in doing so. But eventually he would become one of the most articulate and fierce voices in favor of the American project. In today’s culture, what damage would a YouTube video of him defending the crown have done to his aspirations? At what point would he have been permanently tarred with the label “flip-flopper”? 

Likewise Winston Churchill, who, as Roy Jenkins convincingly argues, really was vital to the preservation of Britain in the dark and uncertain days of 1940. In a “gotcha” culture, it is safe to say that Churchill would never have been prime minister. Having left the Liberal Party for the Conservatives in 1922, he would have been tarnished with the ‘turncoat’ brush, and made to look unreliable. (In actual fact, the parties moved more around him than he around them). More significantly, Churchill made a lot of mistakes in imperial policy. His visceral opposition to any moves towards Indian independence, with which country he became obsessed in the 1930s, provided a host of vertiginous quotes and attitudes which devotees such as myself would prefer quietly to forget, and which in context matter less than the fact that he was at the helm in our darkest hour. Now, they would have disqualified him for public office. There would have been plenty of fodder for pithy advertisements, and there they would have remained, standing forever as a testament to the man’s biggest mistake, and tarring him in perpetuity.

A free media is imperative. Should a person in public life say something that fundamentally undermines a position of his, it is in the public interest for us to hear it. But to spend a life running around behind people on the off-chance they say something stupid? Not so much.

There is also a breathtaking degree of asininity in what constitutes “stupid.” From the same article:

If a Democratic group is ever looking for the image of Mr. Romney paying for a 25-cent lemonade with a $5 bill, it will know just where to go.

And when it has gone to American Bridge 21st Century, then what? I can only presume that this idea is supposed to demonstrate that Mr. Romney is “out of touch”? All it would suggest to me is that Mr. Romney has used up all his change (perhaps he is lacking in “Change We Can Believe In”?), or doesn’t carry enough quarters. Or, you know, that a politician running for president of the United States is not automatically equipped to deal with everything situation in which he finds himself. The United States is on the verge of financial catastrophe, and this is what the political class thinks people want to see? 

Count me out. There are times for amusing videos of cats playing pianos, young children playing guitar, and people falling over onto the sidewalk. But a presidential election should not be one of them.


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