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YouTube video debate actually worked

Posing questions to presidential candidates through brief YouTube videos is unusual but proves successful.

It may have seemed wacky at first, but the idea of allowing Americans to pose questions to presidential candidates through brief YouTube videos turned out to be a success.

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.

Questions posed by YouTube videos ranged from topics such as Iraq and Social Security to unusual queries about Al Gore and about Barack Obama being "black enough."

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."

One disappointment was that the format didn't allow polling of the candidates for quick yes or no answers through a show of hands. Politicians hate being forced to give yes or no answers for the same reason that they loathe voter guides--it robs them of the ability to change the topic to something they think will sound better, and second, it lets voters easily differentiate politicos from one another.

I remember Cooper asking for a show of hands only once, alluding to an agreement with the Democratic National Committee or the candidates that apparently restricted him from doing so. ("I know we said wouldn't do a lot of show of hands; this is probably the only one tonight.")

He asked, as part of a discussion of global warming, "How many people here took a private jet or a charter jet to get here tonight?" Everyone but Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel--both viewed as long shots--acknowledged that they did. Some, perhaps mindful of the flap over Al Gore's $30,000 utility bill, raised their hands only hesitantly.

That answer showed the value of a quick poll and the ability to press candidates for details. Other YouTube-submitted questions that could have easily been handled that way, at least if CNN hadn't (apparently) acquiesced in advance: Do we need a new law requiring that all firearm sales, even by two private individuals, be cleared in advance with the federal government? Should we raise taxes on all Americans making more than $97,000 a year to funnel more money to Social Security? Would you send U.S. ground troops for peacekeeping in Darfur? Should same-sex individuals be able to get married in exactly the same way as heterosexual couples?

In response to the last question, Dodd replied: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman." Edwards said his wife "actually supports gay marriage," but "I do not." Obama talked about "civil unions." But we never heard straight answers from Clinton and the other candidates.

Memorable questions, memorable responses
There were memorable moments. Edwards touted biodiesel and then said, "the last thing we need is another carbon-based fuel," without seeming to realize that biodiesel is derived from sources like vegetable oil that are carbon-based.

In response to a question about public education, Clinton said her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, went to an exclusive private school in Washington, D.C., in part because she was in high school and in part because the media would not leave her alone otherwise. But Chelsea Clinton actually was in junior high school at the time, as a December 1992 Washington Monthly article notes.

The article also points out that the Gore kids and the Quayle kids were also not educated in government schools, and "none of the 67 top education policymakers in the (first) Bush administration sends his or her kids to D.C. public schools."

Yes, there were some bizarre video questions (the one about Al Gore submitted from Murfreesboro, Tenn.). There were some bizarre answers, such as Biden's sharp hostility toward America's gun owners ("I'm not sure he's mentally qualified to own that gun.")

And it's true that the same kind of questions could have come from a town hall-style meeting with an audience. But more people can afford a Webcam than plane tickets to a debate, and the format worked surprisingly well (well enough, in fact, to make this probably the best Democratic debate so far).

Now we'll see whether the Republicans in the CNN-YouTube debate in Florida on September 17 can do any better.