Joe the Plumber may have played a role in last night's debate, but average "Janes" and "Joes" were left on the sidelines.
As the lights dimmed on the fourth and final debate of the 2008 season, one thing has become clear: These types of debates are vestiges of a bygone TV era. Tightly scripted formats and media middlemen aren't what public discourse should look like in the age of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
With the digital world at our fingertips, we the people have come to expect a seat at the table. The Commission on Presidential Debates -- the party-controlled organization that dictates debate formats -- remains reluctant, however, to offer up a chair.
Plumbing the Internet
The candidates clearly struggled last night to strike a common chord with stories of Joe, a real-life plumber from Holland, Ohio. But in their efforts to evoke him, Joe came across as little more than a middle-class caricature propped up for their rhetorical benefit.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of other "Joes" were submitting debate questions to Google's "moderator," Twittering about the debates at "Hack the Debates" and rating the media's performance at RatetheDebates.org.
The spirit of democratic discourse was thriving on the Web's rough and tumble social networks, in spite of the canned speeches being delivered at the same time over the mainstream networks.
"Four years from now, the public's use of the Internet to connect with each other and organize around like-minded interests will force the candidates and the debate commission to significantly abandon the limited format of televised debates," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum.
Rasiej, along with a bipartisan coalition of organizations, is urging people to abandon the debate commission's model and move away from "the scarcity model constraints of TV" toward the open abundance model of the Internet.
People Aren't Props
Over at RatetheDebates.org many of the 2,700 citizen "raters" thought last night's moderator, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer did a decent job -- but he didn't do enough to challenge the candidates' spin. More than 64% of McCain's supporters and 58% of Obama's supporters said he needed to hold the candidates accountable when they didn't tell the truth.
This concern has been consistent in prior debates with many raters reporting that the debate format limited the public's ability to engage in the discussion, while not allowing enough leeway for a departure from scripted answers.
"I'm not really sure that it is necessary to have an audience at all, since they weren't allowed to talk and had to remain neutral," said one rater. "Why have people there at all? We only see them as the candidates walk in."
"I would like for the audience to be able to respond by clapping when they agree with the candidate's position," responded another. "It makes debates much more lively."
"Questions should be drawn from a pool that are submitted and voted upon by citizens either online or by other means," another citizen wrote. "This would achieve a closer approximation to what people really want to know without filtering."
Several other panelists called for instant fact-checking of answers so candidates could not take advantage of the format to spin issues and avoid real answers. "We should have fact-checkers going during the debate so we know when one candidate is lying," suggested one. "The average American does not have the time to fact check everything the senators say."
Learning from Twitter
Last week's town hall format with Tom Brokaw was supposed to put the public front and center. But Brokaw only selected a handful of questions from more than 6 million e-mail and Internet submissions.
Rules set forth in a 31-page memo drafted by the campaigns and agreed to by the debate commission prevented questioners in the studio audience from asking follow-up questions or even showing emotion. Their microphones were cut immediately after their questions were asked and the cameras weren't even allowed to focus on their faces as the candidates responded.
One rater from the Oct. 7 debate said that it's not a town hall meeting "if the 'town hall' is not allowed to participate in the conversation other than by reading prepared questions."
With luck, 2008 will be the last year that the Commission on Presidential Debates gets to set the rules of the road. Voters are already joining forces online to demand interactions with the candidates that are more democratic, transparent and accountable to the public.
It's time the networks, parties and their co-conspirators at the commission followed our lead -- or got out of our way.