EDITORIAL: America’s political Twits

140-character answers won’t save this country

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Twitter is becoming the gimmick of choice for the political campaign season. It says a lot about the decline of American discourse that politicians flock to a medium named for chattering birds.

On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidates will participate in what’s being billed as the “First Presidential Debate on Twitter.” TheTeaParty.net, which organized the event, claims, “the succinct nature of Twitter will force the candidates to provide clear direct answers and the public will see who is providing those answers and the public will see who is just playing politics and providing non-answers.” In terms of substance, however, a tweet ranks somewhere between a talking point and a bumper sticker. Twitter is custom-made for the very type of substance-free sloganeering TheTeaParty.net hopes will be weeded out. Even the rules of the debate allow candidates to do a double-tweet of 280 characters, which exposes the inherent limitation of the platform.

The uselessness of politics by Twitter was on full display at President Obama’s July 6 “Twitter Town Hall.” The misnamed event wasn’t held in a town or a hall but did save Mr. Obama the distasteful task of having to meet with actual Americans. The White House website announced, “President Obama makes history as the first president to live tweet.” This is a trivial accomplishment on history’s stage but it beats promoting the first back-to-back-to-back trillion-dollar budget deficits he’s delivered.

The White House received over 70,000 tweeted queries, which gives the illusion of diversity but at best the question list was homogenized, and at worst it was simply rigged. The Obama administration claimed the selection was made by “Twitter Search algorithms” that “identified the most engaged-with Tweets from your questions and retweets by a panel of seasoned Twitter users.” Nevertheless, Mr. Obama avoided the most retweeted #AskObama question: “Would you consider legalizing marijuana to increase revenue and save tax dollars by freeing up crowded prisons, courtrooms.”

It’s possible to pose a challenging question via Twitter, but the White House demonstrated that tweeted answers are useless. Mr. Obama’s twitter take on tax policy was, “Facts are that a modest increase in taxes for wealthiest doesn’t hurt economy; 90s boom, 2000s slowed. Not like we haven’t tested.” The response reads like comedian Dana Carvey mocking President George H.W. Bush’s telegraphic speaking style, but now the electorate is supposed to admire a politician for expressing himself in empty sentence fragments. Mr. Obama has come a long way from the days when he was hyped as the greatest living orator.

Twitter, as the name suggests, is ephemeral. It has a variety of legitimate uses, but political debates and town-hall meetings are not among them. We want politicians to engage at these events, go off-script, show some depth and give voters an opportunity to judge their characters. Instead we get 140 key strokes, and no character at all.

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