The video questions posed in Monday's were more personal and more direct than the circumlocutions that political journalists tend to prefer, which I admit may not be a compliment to our profession.
But the problem was that the politicians ducked, weaved and often replied without giving a straight answer. (Ironically, the first user-submitted video, which asked the candidates to "actually answer the questions that are posed to you tonight," anticipated this problem but was insufficiently persuasive.)
An example: Gary Berry, a department chairman at the American Military University and 26-year Army veteran, asked a perfectly straightforward two-part question. He wanted to know on what date after the 2009 presidential inauguration all U.S. troops will be gone from Iraq and, second, "How many family members do you have serving in uniform?"
Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Dennis Kucinich responded to the question. Only Dodd actually answered it fully, saying he served in the Army Reserves and had immediate family with military careers, though not mentioning that his stint ended back in 1975.
The ducking was embarrassingly obvious. It called to mind what Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said last year: "This president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft, and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way."
Unfortunately, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper only infrequently pressed the candidates for a direct answer.
According to the format worked out in advance by CNN and YouTube, which is owned by Google, Monday evening's Democratic Party-sanctioned debate in Charleston, S.C., was based on video questions submitted by the public by Sunday evening. CNN received nearly 3,000 videos, and its editors selected 39 for use during the two-hour debate.
Many of the questions were more pointed than what traditional moderators might ask. One video, submitted by Rob Porter of Irvine, Calif., asked Clinton: "How do would you define the word 'liberal?' Would you use this word to describe yourself?"
Clinton replied that liberal "originally meant" someone who supported freedom, but "in the last 30 to 40 years, it has been turned up on its head." Clinton said she is a "modern progressive" and agreed with the moderator that she would not consider herself to be a liberal.
Another pointed question came from Jordan Williams, a black student in Kansas, who asked Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., how he would handle concerns about the senator not being "authentically black enough." (Cooper, the moderator, repeated the question and then apologized for asking it.)
Obama's response: "When I'm catching a cab in Manhattan in the past, I've given my credentials. Race permeates our society. It is still a critical problem. But I do believe in the core decency of the American people."