You would've had a hard time finding nuggets of specific interest to the small business community in last night's YouTube/CNN debate among the Democratic presidential hopefuls. And one could be forgiven for choosing to skip the thing altogether. It sounded more gimmicky than anything else, and what does the television-addled generation have to say, anyway?
Plenty, it turns out. Posing in front of hand-held camera in your own living room appears to be more liberating than dressing up for an evening in a stuffy auditorium -- the questions were by turns intimate and poignant, piercing and riveting. And confronted by voters on their turf, the candidates squirmed and weaseled.
"I'm wondering, since this is such a revolutionary debate," a dude sporting a soul patch, a ball cap, and the hint of a couple vivid tattoos implored at the start, "that if you as politicians can do something revolutionary, and that is to actually answer the questions that are posed to you tonight." Too often, it seemed, the answer was no. Did Barack Obama support reparations to the descendants of American slaves? Hard to say. Why was it appropriate for Sen. Edwards to cite religion in opposing gay marriage? The questioner, who was in the audience, thought Edwards ducked the question at first. Would any candidate send American troops to Darfur? Hem. Haw. (The heroic exception: Joe Biden.)
In such an unconventional forum, divorced from the scripts and controls that normally define electioneering, the "dipping and dodging," as one pre-recorded interlocutor put it, seemed particularly bald. The Entrepreneurial Agenda is not going to join the other analysts who nod approvingly at the evasiveness of a savvy candidate. I hardly consider myself naïve, but it was simply stunning to watch these men and women refuse to answer a question directly knowing that some in the audience might find the response disagreeable. None of the candidates thought that America was accomplishing anything good in Iraq, but only the outliers dared to acknowledge the unpleasant truth that our sons and daughters serving there might be dying in vain.
Where are the straight-talkers, the men and women of courage? Making plain their absence was the virtue of the debate; its weakness was in the time limits that rarely allowed the candidates to express anything but platitudes. That weakness became most apparent with the one question that most directly affects small business: the minimum wage. The new higher federal minimum wage takes effect today, and one questioner asked if the candidates would be willing to serve as president while earning just the minimum wage. Several candidates said yes, but this was just grandstanding -- as Obama pointed out, among that very wealthy group of authors, speakers, and successful trial lawyers, etc, those who could afford to work for nearly nothing could happily agree to; those who were less rich and had kids to put through college, had to demur. But how might a higher minimum wage affect the nation's small businesses? There wasn't any time to get into that.
The Republicans face the camcorders in September. Stay tuned.