The First YouTube Election: George Allen and "Macaca"

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George Allen: Digital foot in twenty-first century mouth

There have already been strong intimations that Virginia Republican Senator George Allen has a "race problem." Now the 2008 GOP presidential pretender has shown off his unique sensitivities again by repeatedly calling an Asian operative from his competitor's campaign "Macaca." A Macaca is monkey native to Asia. The man, S.R. Sidarth, is of Indian decent.

Not content with insinuating that Sidarth is a primate, Allen also said to him, "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia!" For the record: Sidarth was born in Virginia.

Unluckily — more than unluckily, stupidly — for Allen, Sidarth's job is to videotape Allen's public appearances, in the hopes, it would seem, of capturing a revealing off-color moment of candor such as this one. Today, the video evidence of Allen's apparent race problem is all over the Internet, thanks to the wonders of YouTube.

There's a paradigm shift under way and politicians like Allen, and to a lesser extent Joe Lieberman and Barbara Boxer, are learning it the hard way. The barriers to video broadcast are now gone. So an opposing campaign no longer has to rely on a local news station or CNN or CSPAN to run video of a gaffe. Any dolt with a handicam now can capture the unscripted reality of a candidate and disseminate it worldwide.

If it generates enough buzz in the blogosphere, the cable networks will even pick it up, as happened almost immediately with Allen's monkeyboy dig.

What does this YouTube revolution mean for politics? It's far too early to tell. One might hope that the omipresence of handicam reporters would mean that all of the artifice of advance teams and printed backdrops and hand-picked crowds of supporters only will be erroded. Unlike the professionals at CNN who play along and film the fakeness because it makes for pretty TV, the YouTubers out there are dedicated to exposing such artifice as an embarassment. And embarassing it is.

On the other hand, this YouTube threat could also hurtle the stage management of politics into hyperdrive, curtailing the kind retail politics and informal "Listening Tours" like the one Allen was on yesterday. Every candidate suffers from foot in mouth disease occasionally, if left alone without a script in front of a live audience. The consultants and advance men may stop deploying their candidates to the real world to every extent practicable.

Whatever the case, it's clear that YouTube is already changing the game. And politicians of all stripes had better watch out.