Let's give credit where credit is due: the opening moments of the YouTube/CNN Democratic debate did promise something out of the ordinary. Instead of being greeted by some elaborately coiffed network drone, the candidates were welcomed
by a goateed slacker from Portland, Oregon. You almost expected Wayne Campbell
to pop up in the background. True, this Video Everyman quickly ceded the role of ringmaster to Anderson Cooper. But there was at least a whiff of ordinary life afoot, and the applause from the audience at the Citadel suggested the hearty approval and high spirits of a good rock concert.
Cooper, whose jacket looked a little tight across the midriff, first treated viewers to a series of outtakes: in other words, video submissions that were too freaky or facetious to make the cut. There were nutters in Viking hats and chicken costumes. There were quite a lot of children, too--a practice frowned upon by Cooper: "People seemed to use their kids to ask adult questions." The most viewed video on YouTube prior to the debate, which equated Arnold Schwarzenegger with a heroic cyborg, was conspicuously excluded. And Joe Biden was chided for attempting to game the system, a charge he acknowledged with a nod and a wolfish grin.
The opening video, from Zach Kempf of Provo, Utah, immediately threw down the populist gauntlet:
"How are you going to be any different?" With public approval of the Democratic Congress plummeting almost as quickly as the president's own ratings, this was a tricky question. The candidates had to position themselves as simultaneous insiders and outsiders, a task fumbled by Christopher Dodd, who huffed his way through some familiar riffs about "new ideas, bold ideas." Barack Obama was quicker on his feet here, insisting that no real progress will be made "unless we change how business is done in Washington."
The next question, from Davis Fleetwood of Easton, Massachusetts, was a replay of the first one: "How would America be better off if you were president?" Dennis Kucinich, generally in good form, fired back some rather canned paradoxes: "I believe in duty through honor.... We achieve strength through peace." But Hillary Clinton shaped the question to her own purpose, getting in some non-too-subtle digs at Obama's slender resume. "We are united for change," she granted. "The issue is which of us is ready to lead on Day One."
Obama, meanwhile, took his own shots at the preferred target of every candidate in attendance: the special interests. It's a convenient gambit, since nobody cares to defend bloated energy conglomerates or the insurance industry. Yet the candidates tend to tilt at abstractions, without specifying exactly how these predators would be driven from the governmental chicken coop. "We've got to get the national interest up front," Obama argued, "as opposed to the special interests." Hear, hear. But how?
Next, the contenders were handed a semantic hot potato
: "How would you define the word liberal
?" Depending on your view of Clinton, she either hit that one out of the park or did one of the end runs so favored by her nimble husband. The word, she explained, "has been turned on its head... [and] made to describe big government. I prefer the word progressive
," she said, with the satisfied look of somebody who's conquered a particularly vicious tongue-twister. "I consider myself a proud, modern, American progressive." Mike Gravel, to the amusement of the crowd, refused to endorse either epithet. Then he went on to denounce the whole pack, promising that "you're not going to see any change if these people get elected." (He also accused Obama of lining his pockets with contributions from Swiss financial giant UBS. You head it here first: if Obama gets elected, look for compulsory cuckoo clocks and the immediate relaxation of cheese tariffs.)
And so it went. Asked to name his favorite Republican, John Edwards got in his
licks at those damn special interests: "I have been fighting these people my entire life, and beating them." A question about reparations for slavery
elicited a negative answer from Edwards, an evasive one from Obama ("I think the reparation we need right here in South Carolina is investment in our schools"), and an attack by Kucinich on... special interest groups.
It took a few more questions about race to jog the candidates out of their populist rut. For example: was Obama an authentic black person? Here, it must be admitted, was a question that never would have made it past the radar--or at least the decorum--of a conventional debate panel. And Obama had an amusing, non-automatic answer: "When I had to catch a cab in Manhattan in the past, I was given my credentials." On a more serious note, he noted his belief "in the core decency of the American people," and insisted that the elimination of social and economic disparities "is what will solve the race problem in this country."
A question about gay marriage
also produced some unusually straight (as it were) talk. Kucinich said yes, while Dodd, Richardson, and Edwards all stuck by the man-and-woman model for holy matrimony. Edwards seemed to want some credit for his tortured conscience ("I feel enormous personal conflict about this issue"), and then shifted into reverse with his statement that no official may use his faith "to deny anybody their rights. I will not do that as president." Does this mean he would support gay marriage as public policy while personally viewing it with disapproval? A follow-up might have been helpful, but Cooper--who generally did press the candidates for specifics--had already moved along.
Next: foreign policy. A video filmed near a refugee camp in Darfur put that
issue on the table, and opened up some interesting fissures among the field. Biden came out in favor of immediate American intervention. "Where we can
," he exclaimed, "America must
!" This may smooth over the complications of dropping 20,000 U.S. troops into a war-torn African nation, but as a call to arms, it was pretty stirring stuff. Bill Richardson argued for diplomacy and a U.N. peacekeeping force; Clinton added to that divestment and a no-fly zone. When pressed by Cooper, she did draw an additional line in the sand: "American ground troops do not belong in Darfur at this time."
How novel, and how refreshing, to hear some specifics! Half the time the candidates still hedged, and flailed away at the straw man of the special interests; but the rest of the time, this interrogation by the vox pop did seem to prompt some actual answers. When would the assembled company withdraw all American troops from Iraq? They named their dates--April 2008 (Dodd), January 2008 (Richardson), July 2007 (Kucinich)--or at least attempted to explain why they thought a specific timetable was impractical. Biden also put in a pitch for partitioning Iraq into a loose confederation, and ridiculed the pie-in-the-sky scenarios floated by his colleagues. "Time to tell the truth," he practically snorted. "It would take one year
to physically withdraw 160,000 troops from the country."
Before the event wrapped up, Gravel got off another jeremiad ("The Clintons and the DLC sold out the Democratic Party to Wall Street!") and everybody raised a hand for an increased minimum wage. It's hard to say who won, or at least dominated the evening's political theater. Edwards, his blue eyes luminous in close-up and with a bit of Nixonian perspiration on his upper lip, turned in a solid, imperturbable performance. Biden made a good case for himself as the grizzled realist. Kucinich and Gravel staked out the margins, with Richardson and Dodd in the less-than-captivating center.
And again, Obama and Clinton failed to knock each other out of the running. The latter couldn't help but stand out, wearing a shiny salmon-colored jacket that her detractors will inevitably deride for its Dragon Lady overtones
. But Clinton has shed much of the robotic demeanor that dogged her senatorial campaigns. And despite one pointed question about the evils of dynastic rule, she has delicately put some distance between herself and Bill, and learned to project mature competence and the odd glint of spontaneity. Obama still seems awfully young
; you wonder whether he's ever shaved. On the other hand, he can play the outsider card much more effectively than Hillary, and his distance from the business of politics-as-usual may yet tip the balance in his favor.
That leaves the process itself. It would be hard to argue that the voices of ordinary men and women dramatically changed the rules of the game. In many ways, it was a political debate like any other in this country--meaning not a debate at all, but a Kabuki-like ritual in which the candidates studiously ignored each other and refused to budge from their comfort zones unless the moderator waved a flaming brand in their faces. Yet there were moments of candor and specificity that were truly encouraging, and made me curious to see how the Republican field fares with the same YouTube-driven procedure. The questions from the citizenry weren't more probing or smart than the standard fare, but they were often attractively blunt. More to the point, they were posed by human beings, rather than by maniacally triangulating pollsters or focus groups. And sometimes, at least, the candidates seem determined to answer in the same spirit. Can that be bad?