Near tears, a father who lost his son in Iraq asked about ending the war. Removing a wig from her head, a woman with breast cancer asked about universal healthcare. An animated snowman asked about global warming.
Monday’s You Tube presidential debate on CNN —- in which the videosharing site’s users submitted questions — was at times heart-wrenching, at time frustrating and at times just plain bizarre.
By and large, it hardly thwarted the field of eight Democratic contenders from falling back on their themes on the stump, their jibes at one another or even a recitation of their resumes.
While the questions presented an often provactive twist to a format already growing a bit stale, there were precious few “YouTube” moments on par in irreverence with the Obamagirls and Hillary’s offkey singing.
That wasn’t to say there weren’t moments of contention.
The candidates sparred over Iraq and how best to get out. Bill Richardson tried to set himself apart in his calls for a withdrawal within six months; Joseph Biden characterized such plans as unrealistic. Barack Obama said the “time to ask how we are going to get out of Iraq was before we went in,” a dig at Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize the use of force.
But Clinton got her own jab in. When Obama said he would be willing to meet with leaders of hostile countries such as Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and North Korea, she responded that she would wait and see. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes.”
The intent of the two-hour forum, which took place at the Citadel in South Carolina, was billed as the first-of-its-kind chance for regular Americans to ask the questions. The presumption was that the public’s concerns are different from those of the news media, so focused on the horserace, campaign strategy and the trivial. The only reference to John Edwards’ $400 haircut came from the candidate himself, in one of the 30-second videos each camp was allowed to present at the debate. His was set to the theme from “Hair,” and led to an image from Iraq and the message: What really matters? You Choose.”
In several cases, the new format did lead to the unexpected. “Cecelia” and “Ashanti” from Pennsylvania asked whether the candidates, if elected to the White House, would be willing to work for minimum wage. All indicated they would except for Chris Dodd, who noted that he has two young children.
To which Obama prodded him, “You’re doing all right, Chris, compared to most folks.”
Obama himself was asked how he responded when people asked if he was black enough. “You know, when I am catching a cab in Manhattan … I think I have given my credentials.”
The debate tried to set an informal tone from the start. It opened with a YouTube video of “Chris” from Portland, who in a sassy manner asked the candidates to answer the questions rather than “beat around the ‘Bush’,” he said.
Then moderator Anderson Cooper reiterated the point. “The challenge tonight is to make sure that all of the candidates answer the questions asked of them.”
But the first query out of the gate, from “Zack” in Provo, Utah, was hardly a difficult one. He asked candidates how they will be able to get things done in Washington given that so many politicians have failed.
“People have an urgent desire for change in Washington,” Obama said, sounding a familiar theme from the campaign trail. Others did the same.
And some questions didn’t always get a direct answer. Saheed Badmus of Brentwood, Md., asked which Republican the candidates would pick as their running mate. Biden answered Chuck Hagel, with Richard Lugar as secretary of state.
But when the question went to Edwards, he went into his populist message of facing up to big corporations who have influence over the system. “The only way they are going to give away their power is if we take it away from them,” he said. It was an important point, but not an answer to the question being asked.
Some of the better moments of the forum came when Cooper kept the candidates from veering off into other issues. During a question about global warming, he followed up by surveying which candidates had flown to the debate in a private jet. Most raised their hand, except Mike Gravel, who took the train.
What also helped was when, in addition to running a YouTube user’s query, they actually brought the questioner in, as if to put further pressure on the field to answer.
That proved especially true when Reggie Longcrier, a minister from Hickory, N.C., challenged Edwards as to why it is OK to cite religious beliefs when noting why he’s against gay marriage. Of the field, only Gravel and Dennis Kucinich support gay marriage, while others are for civil unions.
“I feel enormous personal conflict about this issue,” Edwards said, adding that his wife supports gay marriage and that he does believe that it is “absolutely wrong to use faith as a basis for denying anyone their rights.”
But Edwards seemed at ease with the format, perhaps because he has been doing countless townhall forums across the country.
In one of the debate’s final moments, when each candidate was asked what they liked and disliked about the person to the left of them onstage, Edwards looked at Clinton and offered her much praise, but peered at her pinkish top and said, “I am not sure about that coat.” It was a bit catty, but perhaps fit the atmosphere.
Some didn’t attempt to match the irreverence. When one user presented an animated snowman to ask about global warming, Kucinich answered it, in all seriousness.
And other participants seemed to find parts of the debate just plain odd. One questioner, “Jered” from Michigan, asked about gun control and then displayed his “baby,” an automatic assault weapon. “I will tell you, if that is his baby, he needs help,” Biden said. “I think he made that admission against his self-interest. I don’t think he is mentally qualified to own that gun.”
Then, he added, “I hope he doesn’t come looking for me.”