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HILLARY'S TOWN HALL: Credit Where Credit Is Due

BY Dan Manatt | Tuesday, February 5 2008

I thought the Clinton town hall was pretty cool -- and pretty significant.

Not because it was interactive-to-the-max (more on that below). Not because it was a great issues discussion for anyone who has been following the race closely (though its target audience are voters who have not been following the race closely). Not because Hillary is a great tech candidate, or will be a great tech president (though her gov Blogs proposal is the most interesting tech policy proposal to date). In fact, not because of Hillary at all (though she did well, though I’m sure Obama would have done better in that type of forum). Nor even because it was a great technological leap forward (Bill Clinton did the first electronic town hall in 92 - more later).

Hillary’s town hall was significant for more prosaic reasons: It took candidate electronic town halls - and TV/Web simulcasts - mainstream.

We’ve come a long way since Ike did the first candidate town halls, “Ask Ike”, in 1952. What the Clinton campaign did was fully fulfill what Ross Perot prophesized in 1992 - the electronic town hall. Notably, candidate Bill Clinton actually did an electronic town hall in spring 1992 in Ontario, California, with remote audiences participating from Fremont, Fresno, and elsewhere by remote feed. But that was held during the “sitzkrieg” period of the 92 campaign, so it went largely unnoticed. I’m not aware of a fully interactive town hall since - McCain did satellite feeds in 2000, but they were not two-way. The Dean campaign may have, but overall its InternetTV strategy was memorable mostly for the utter failure that was Dean TV - a system way too cumbersome for users.

The 2000 GOP and 2004 Democratic conventions had a few satellite feeds, but again, not interactive. In fact, I think you’d have to say the most interactive convention moment was Nancy Reagan at the 1984 GOP convention waving to Ronald Reagan, watching from his hotel suite, who was beamed on to a jumbotron above the podium in Dallas.

Hillary’s Town Hall simulcast may not have been the first - nor even conceptually novel - but it will be remembered as groundbreaking. And credit where credit is due - a campaign linking in 22 remote locations - no small feat.

A few reactions to other posts on this topic:

Despite the name of this site, I think it’s important to remember that candidates are not actually running to be the Tech President of the Interactive United States. If tech savvy and interactivity got candidates elected, McCain would have won in 2000 and Dean would have won in 2004, as by any objective measure they were the tech candidates of those cycles. And that is as it should be. There is a lot more to being a president that knowing how to play to the tech crowd. In fact, I would argue one of Joe Trippi’s great mistakes in 04 was believing his own PR in 04. Now, when you have a smart candidate whose intelligence extends to policy, politics, and technology - that’s a lethal combination.

And interactivity, as judged by orthodox technorati, can be overrated. While we all had our judgments about the YouTube debates, I believe candidates are fully entitled to control media events. If they go overboard in being control freaks, they risk blowback -- which is exactly what Hillary got with Phil Devellis’s 1984/Vote Different video -- still a defining moment in this campaign -- and press coverage of the Clinton campaign planting questions. But to this observer Hillary’s town hall last night seem nearly as scripted as her initial web chats. The second question was on gay marriage - that may have been a strategic decision by her campaign to seem less rigid than past chats, but it couldn’t have won her many votes in Missouri, Idaho, Alabama and Georgia.

And remember, these are candidate town halls -- not no-rules-everyone-gets-to-hold-the-floor-indefinitely New England town halls. If full “interactivity” means open mic, you wind up getting frat boys rambling on with prank questions, ending their screed with, “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” -or the retired gay officer filibustering the GOP YouTube debate. I’m for dropping don’t ask, don’t tell, but not for disrupting the GOP debate to further the cause.

I guess it’s the ultimate sign that I am truly getting old, but I am amazed how jaded many are about the technological leaps we’ve been seeing every election. It truly proves the maxim that breakthrough ideas - or tools - go from the impossible to the boring conventional wisdom overnight.

Maybe Hillary’s town hall was boring and convention to many who read and write on this site, but to me, having thought of electronic town halls as a chimera of the future when they were first put forward -- to see them made so easily accomplished, so accepted as even blase technology - that’s pretty amazing.