Monday night at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls squared off at yet another presidential debate, their fifth of an already tiring primary campaign season. The one major difference CNN wanted you to notice? No journalist lackey would be asking the questions — well, unless you count moderator/ringmaster Anderson Cooper.
No, these questions came directly from prospective voters like you, or more specifically, prospective voters who use YouTube. CNN received the questions via the video-sharing site.
While utilizing user-generated video questions was certainly a new idea, would this debate really be different? After all, presidential candidates have been answering voter inquiries via e-mail and at town hall meetings for years. What makes seeing the interrogator in her messy, poorly lit living room any more special?
With an opening "challenge" from Chris in Portland, Oregon, to "actually answer the questions posed to you tonight," the fifth Democratic debate was off and running. And while most of the topics covered were familiar — health care, Iraq, gay rights — seeing people ask questions in their own words, from their own homes, created an environment that was at times both provocative and emotional.
In one video, questioner Gary Berry showed the candidates three American flags that sat behind him on his mantle. They were given to him upon the deaths of his grandfather, his father and his oldest son. "I do not want to see my youngest son's [flag] join them," he said. "By what date after January 21, 2009, will all the troops be out of Iraq?"
In another video, the Reverend Reggie Longcrier from North Carolina asked former Senator John Edwards why it was all right to cite religion as a reason to legislate against gay marriage, since religion was once used to defend civil-rights violations, like slavery and segregation.
After Edwards responded to Longcrier's question by saying that he "personally has been on a journey on this issue" and that he "feels enormous conflict about it," Cooper turned to the audience and — surprise! — asked Longcrier to stand up from his spot in the audience. Cooper wanted to know if Longcrier felt that Edwards had answered his question. (The stunt fizzled when Longcrier said he couldn't really hear Edwards' response.)
Getting real answers to questions was the evening's theme, with Cooper often reminding candidates to stay on topic. Some YouTube interrogators also acknowledged the topic-dodging dance politicians perform. "I know y'all are gonna run around this question, dipping and dodging," said Will from Massachusetts in his video, before asking a question about reparations for blacks.
The debate certainly had its screwy moments — a question about the environment was posed by a snowman and a tax question was sung by a man with a guitar — but many of the questions were gutsy. A serviceman named John, who is serving in Okinawa, Japan, asked New York Senator Hillary Clinton how she expected to be taken seriously when dealing with Middle Eastern countries, since many of them treat their own women as second-class citizens. "If you are president of the United States, how do you feel that you would even be taken seriously by these states in any kind of talks, negotiations or any other diplomatic relations?" he asked. "I feel this is a legitimate question."
After telling the audience about the high-level meetings with heads of state she has had over the years, the senator replied pointedly: "I believe there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously."
Many of the questions had a more personal edge than in previous debates. The candidates were asked if they sent their kids to public or private schools (many had chosen private) and if they would be willing to serve as president if the position paid the federal minimum wage (all said yes, except Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, who cited two children he still needed to educate).
As for the most highly anticipated matchup of the night, which pitted frontrunner Clinton against her closest rival in the polls, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, their clashes were short, but substantial. After Clinton responded to a question about withdrawing from Iraq by stating her belief in a safe exit strategy, Obama said he welcomed her desire to withdraw but that "the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in."
Clinton, too, jabbed at Obama without mentioning him by name. In response to a question about meeting with the leaders of rogue nations, Obama said that, unlike the Bush administration, he would engage various world leaders with whom the U.S. has conflict. Clinton objected. "Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year," she said. "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse."
Each of the eight candidates also showed 30-second YouTube-style videos, with differing results. The most popular clip, judging by audience reaction, was Edwards', which interspersed shots of hair with footage from the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while the title track from the musical "Hair" played in the background. (The video responded to those who complained about the senator's $400 haircuts.)
Perhaps the most provocative voter-created video came from Jared Townsend of Clio, Michigan. "To all the candidates, tell me your position on gun control," he asked, "as myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe." He then pulled out what appeared to be an automatic weapon. "This is my baby, purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views."
Senator Joe Biden of Delaware answered, "I'll tell you what, if that is his baby, he needs help." The crowd applauded.
The Republican candidates will hold their CNN/ YouTube debate on September 17.