Dems Unloaded: YouTube Style

Democrat candidates stood like stiff reeds in anticipation of each YouTube video question unleashed on the big screen last night in the nation’s first  more-or-less interactive online presidential debate.

With over 3,000 submissions, it’s hard to know how broadly this “people’s” debate represented the country after being sifted through media filters at CNN headquarters. Anderson Cooper hosted the two hour event, which featured everything from a same sex couple inquiring about gay marriage to a country singer strumming guitar about high taxes. The public added a splash of entertainment to the debate but unlike the creative questioners, candidates responded with worn out talking points.

“The time for us to ask how we are going to get out of Iraq is before we went in,” said former Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) to a stream of applause.

There were worthy moments, such as when Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.)  answered a question about meeting diplomatically with leaders of foreign nations like North Korea and Iran. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes,” she said after confirming she would not meet with such leaders in the first year of office. Obama said he would meet with them, referencing former president Ronald Reagan’s willingness to talk with a country he called “the evil empire.”

This was the extent of confronting terrorist threats in the debate.

Rep. Dennis’s Kucinich’s (Ohio) line that “All the Democrats have to do to end the war is to stop funding it…” conformed with most of the other rote  anti-Iraq answers that flooded the stage. All comfortably relied on the “get out of Iraq” argument, but no one presented a strategy for victory.  Or for what happens if we leave suddenly. 

“It’s time for Republicans to join us to stand up to the president to bring our troops home,” said Clinton, who refused to identify as a liberal when asked.

"I prefer the word ‘progressive,’ which has a real American meaning, said Clinton. "I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we’re working together…"

She fearfully ducked behind every excuse to avoid being labeled, as though ‘progressive’ weren’t a synonym for ‘liberal.’ 

Messages based on real convictions were apparently absent on cornerstone issues like alternative energy, gay marriage and public school as panelists hopped around words as if they were  playing dodge ball — hoping whatever tumbled out of their mouths wouldn’t put them in a corner. 

Most candidates were relieved when only Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) were forced to answer a question on healthcare for illegal immigrants. Both agreed that they would include undocumented aliens in their universal plans.

One YouTube video featured a woman who “hope[d] to be a cancer survivor” and pled on the part of universal healthcare, but tackling this issue in debate is easy for a panel who all have the same intentions. A CNN tracking poll after the debate showed that Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) made the most positive impact with viewers on this topic when he mustered up one of the most passionate responses of the night.

Other questions addressed politically incorrect issues, like race and gender, both of which have toxic relevance to frontrunners Obama and Clinton. Obama summed up his blackness saying he’s “given his credentials” when he’s “catching a cab in Manhattan.” Clinton was applauded when she said she “couldn’t run as anything but a woman.”

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel’s usual bluntness tore through the mostly refined atmosphere when he said American soldiers were “dying in vain,” while everyone else clearly believed it but danced around saying so. (Gravel is also the only one who didn’t take a private jet to get to The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, where the debates were held. So much for the Democrats solid stance on saving energy and stopping global warming.)

Cooper habitually cut off Dodd and only rarely called on Kucinich to answer questions. Biden brought the only glimmer of reality concerning Iraq when he said,  “If we started today, it would take one year … to get 160,000 troops physically out of Iraq." Biden will not capture the nomination but his assesment may be the only rationale viewpoint on the Democratic side.

During breaks, candidate’s personal YouTube-style advertisement videos were aired. Edwards confronted one of his biggest criticisms when he showed a video set to a soundtrack of the song “Hair” and ending with a single question on the screen: “What really matters?” It may have been Edwards’ finest moment in the debate.

A body movement analyst after the show maintained that the top three tier candidates appeared the most confident, handed one another the most compliments — and barely glanced at one another, specifically Clinton and Obama.

The YouTube phenomenon was hyped for weeks and its Republican counterpart is scheduled for September 5. Will the Republicans do better?  Or is this gimmick too gimmicky for any serious conversation?