When CNN and YouTube announced they'd be taking questions for Monday's debate through the popular video-sharing site, they used words like innovative and unprecedented, and they went on to beat such words to death in the drive up to the event. Seriously, viewers may have heard such talk more than "The Most Trusted Name in News." Even a modest failure would have certainly launched egg on to several high-profile faces, like Anderson Cooper's, who noted from the outset that he wasn't sure how it would turn out. But the format proved to be just what the organizers had promised: a new, unique way for voters to ask the intimate and emotional questions that candidates may get on the campaign trail, but rarely get in front of a national audience.
The first question, a dispirited plea for the victor in the race to actually do something once he or she got to the Oval Office, pegged the night's questioners as a voting public cynical about politicians who have left many a broken promise in their wake. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the responses were ... the same thing everyone has heard before.
"And we are not going to fix health care, we're not going to fix energy, we are not going to do anything about our education system unless we change how business is done in Washington," said Sen. Barack Obama.
Sen. Hillary Clinton suggested the real question in Monday's debate centered on who's ready for the big dance.
"We cannot take another four or eight years of Republican leadership that has been so disastrous for our country," she said. "The issue is: Which of us is ready to lead on day one?"
There was the same back-scratching that one has come to expect from these debates. Answers occasionally got the "like so-and-so just said" treatment and there were several moments where the candidates praised one or all of their fellow Democrats on the stage, including a question at the end of the debate that seemed straight out of a summer camp program, where each candidate had to give a like and a dislike about the person to their left.
The biggest laugh came when proud liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, standing at the end of the row of candidates, had no one to his left.
"They didn't put anybody to the left of me. Think about it," he said.
To which Cooper shot back, "I'm not sure it would be possible to find anybody."
The YouTube format brought some humor, and, at least in the case of one snowman asking about global warming, attempts at humor. But it also gave journalists an opportunity to ask some questions of the candidates that may seem too blunt if asked by a moderator, like asking Obama how he responds to suggestions that he's not black enough.
"You know, when I'm catching a cab in Manhattan ... I think I've given my credentials," he said.
When asked later if she felt that Muslim leaders would work with a woman president, Clinton said, " I believe that there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously."
But it was a white man, former Sen. John Edwards, who gave the best answer to the sexists or bigots who judge candidates based on superficiality.
"Anybody who's considering not voting for Senator Obama because he's black or for Senator Clinton because she's a woman, I don't want their vote," he said. "I don't want them voting for me."
On Iraq, Kucinich called for no more war funding while other candidates said an exit will have to be planned and executed over time.
"They're not even planning for that in the Pentagon," Clinton said. "But until we get this president and the Pentagon to begin to at least tell us they are planning to withdraw, we are not going to be able to turn this around."
Candidates were quizzed on gay marriage, with Sen. Chris Dodd again stating that he'd support equal rights and legal benefits if his daughters turned out to be gay, but he said that gay marriage was a bridge too far — a sentiment echoed by most candidates. Kucinich received applause when he said he supports gay marriage, but the pragmatic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said that he'd do what's realistic.
"What I think is achievable is full civil unions with full marriage rights," he said.
The marriage question highlighted one of the more pronounced benefits of the YouTube format — the obvious emotional investment by the questioner.
A monotone question from a moderator about the crisis in Darfur certainly never had the punch that a plea from relief workers in the refugee camps did Monday night. While one would think that these folks were off the campaign route, both Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Joe Biden noted they had been to that very camp.
At least one more YouTube debate is promised — a bout among the ten or so Republican candidates in September. But it's easy to predict that, as citizen journalism continues to thrive and political-minded folks catch on to the YouTube craze, we'll be seeing more questions by the average joe — and, quite possibly, the average snowman.