Test Tube

The Democrats’ YouTube debate is surprisingly entertaining.

The big three: Edwards, Clinton, and Obama

One of the old tests for presidential candidates used to be whether voters could imagine watching them on the television in their livings rooms for four or eight years. At the CNN/YouTube debate, where voters videotaped questions at home, the living room came to the candidates. And so did the bathroom, and the breakfast nook, and the little room off the hall where the luggage with the broken zipper is kept. One young woman taped her video sitting on a bed, and when it appeared on the big screen, it looked for a moment like we were going to have an entirely different kind of evening altogether.

The highly hyped experiment in user-generated content worked. In the privacy of their homes, people were at ease, and their videos reflected that. They sounded human. Had the same people been standing in the auditorium at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., asking questions, they would have frozen up or tried to sound too polished.

Sure, some of the videos were so washed-out, it made you want to dial 911 to report a hostage-taking. The whimsical videos were also not good: A talking snowman, two rednecks, and a heavy-metal ditty about No Child Left Behind were awful in that special embarrassing way usually reserved for parents who try too hard to show their children they’re hip. But what the majority of the nearly 40 YouTube videos provided was authenticity, which is usually as hard to find in presidential debates as humility. It’s one thing to ask in the abstract about gay marriage. It’s another thing to have two women asking why they can’t marry each other. In one powerful question, a woman being treated for breast cancer removed her wig. In another, a man asking about ending the Iraq war noted the three folded flags over his shoulder, which had been on the caskets of father, grandfather, and oldest son.

The informality seemed to bring out a little more emotion in the candidate responses, or perhaps the authenticity of the videos put their answers in a more valuable and human context. Here’s how the individual candidates came across:

Hillary Clinton: She’s like a machine. (I mean that in a good way.) In four debates, Hillary Clinton has been commanding and made only small mistakes. She had her facts lined up on the big issues—like the speed of redeploying troops from Iraq—but she was also able to handle the smaller, unpredictable questions like whether she considers herself a liberal (she prefers progressive) to whether she could really offer change when her election would mean two families had been in the White House for up to 28 consecutive years. For the latter, she offered not only a crowd-pleasing anti-Bush joke but a pro-Gore follow-up before pivoting to make the case for her own merits.

Clinton’s advisers like to say you can’t cram for the presidency—a dig at Obama—and that’s what comes across in the debates: She’s prepared and never rattled. Her performances are not risky, but they match her larger narrative that she’ll be ready on Day 1 of her presidency. (Memo to Clinton’s image-makers: Like Gov. Richardson, Hillary looks angry when she’s thinking. More than just miffed, she looks like she’s plotting retributions.)

One of the strong moments of the night came when Clinton differed from Barack Obama on how to handle presidential-level negotiations with Cuba, Iran, and other rogue regimes. Obama said he would negotiate and gave a seemingly powerful, full-throated endorsement of diplomacy. Hillary was more cautious and noted she wouldn’t want any negotiations to be used merely as propaganda. It was a judicious answer. Would the two of them have any operational difference in the way they handled those countries? Probably not. Obama wasn’t advocating getting on the plane to Tehran tomorrow, but Clinton’s answer was more measured and thoughtful. It’s one thing to talk about experience, but Clinton demonstrated it. The answer was substantively correct and theatrically successful. Even if voters don’t reward her for this, it was a sign of how on her game she is at these debates.

Barack Obama: This was perhaps Obama’s best night of the four debates so far. He gave solid answers and seemed more decisive and declarative, something that has been missing in previous forums. He was funny and knew how to pivot in his answers, which is one way candidates convey a sense of command to voters. In three different instances, he took personal questions—about whether he is black enough, whether he’d work for the minimum wage, and whether he sends his daughters to public school—and turned them effortlessly into responses to larger issues.

If Clinton is not going to make mistakes, Obama has to take her on. That’s a high-risk strategy for a candidate who talks so much about changing politics, but in the only instance where he tried, he did it effectively. During a discussion about the Iraq war, he noted that Clinton’s recent efforts to pressure the Pentagon amounted to too little, too late. “The time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in,” he said, referring to her vote to authorize the Iraq war.

Perhaps more important for Obama’s long-term political growth is that he also showed that he could be disciplined in the quirky debate format. One of his advisers told me this week that when his aides have tried to get Obama to be more precise in his answers and to deliver set-piece lines, he has bristled. He thinks it’s phony. The problem is, if he doesn’t, his answers can look meandering and fuzzy. Tonight he hit his marks. He’d not used the expression “special interests” in previous debates. In Charleston he said it four times, repeatedly showing voters how he will translate the new kind of politics he talks about so much into something that works for them and not the lobbyists. The special interests line also links back to his career as a state senator, which highlights his experience, an area his opponents point to as a weakness.

Obama also was more assertive, making direct claims about his promises and his future action. “That’s the kind of leadership that I’ll show as president of the United States,” he said several times, another trope he hadn’t used frequently before. These are at one level mere debate tricks, but Obama has shown he can be inspirational. He’s now showing that he can be disciplined even in settings that don’t lend themselves to his natural talents.

John Edwards: He came to fight and he did. He didn’t lash out at any particular opponent, though he did start the evening sounding like he might. “Do you believe that compromise, triangulation, will bring about big change?” he asked, referring to a strategy perfected by former President Bill Clinton. “I do not.” But that’s as pointed as he got about his opponents. (Later, he even complimented the seriousness of Obama’s health-care plan). Instead Edwards pressed his populist case as passionately as he has at any previous debate, presenting himself as the only one who would take the fight to banks, mortgage companies, insurance companies, and other special interests. His genuine outrage was readily apparent, which was a far more effective way of showing his passion than when he merely speaks about how passionately he cares about things.

Edwards also had some strong moments of stagecraft. He turned a question about women signing up for Selective Service into a chance to praise the female fighter pilot who flew the first missions into Iraq and who sat with his wife. He answered a question about his faith journey on gay marriage in a way that some might find confusing but that I found thoroughly authentic.

All of the candidates made 30-second “YouTube-style” videos. Clinton copied D.A. Pennebaker; Obama’s was flat and Dodd’s was the most amusing. Edwards’ team may have made the best one, a montage of pictures showing the woes both foreign and domestic and set to the theme from the musical Hair, a reference to the flap over his $400 haircut. He clearly got his message across during the evening; the key question that his candidacy faces is just how strong and big a vote he can create for himself with his stirring populist pitch.

JoeBiden: He’s liberated, and it looks good on him. At the first Democratic forum, the Delaware senator was asked about his long-windedness, which now seems like question from a full Biden ago. In his new iteration, when he talks, you want to hear him go on. He’s not generating stale wind or tap dancing—he’s making an appeal for truth and honesty in politics, which is appealing from any quarter. You don’t have to like what he’s saying to admire the way he says it. That’s good for Biden because a lot of Democrats won’t like what he was saying. His political problem is that while he has a plan like no other candidate for Iraq, his honesty on how hard and long it will take to pull out of there is not popular. When he calls for truth in the debate about defunding the war, he’s criticizing the party’s most active members. His passionate case for ground troops in Darfur is noble but seems like a really hard sell, given the nation’s war weariness and given how stretched the military already is. 

Bill Richardson: The New Mexico governor had his best performance. He still looks tentative and uncomfortable on-stage, but he showed a command of the facts in a way he hasn’t in previous performances. He tried to show the differences with the other candidates, which suggested discipline: He knows why he’s on the stage and what he has to do (an open question in past evenings). But Richardson’s plan for complete withdrawal from Iraq in six months seems completely unworkable, and when he lists his plans for combating problems, he piles them up in a way that seems a little sloppy and unrealistic.

The Others: Chris Dodd was occasionally passionate, but on a lot of his answers, it sounds like he’s stalling for time. Dennis Kucinich knows where he stands, and boy, if you want change, he’s offering it, but Democratic voters don’t want that much change—at least not from him. Mike Gravel has always seemed like the kind of person who would tape angry YouTube rants in the cold backyard shed, so he seemed at home in a way. He complained about the little amount of time he was given to respond, which wasted his time, but was momentarily endearing when he talked about a teacher who had influenced him, a question that was put to all candidates: “He recognized me as a very failing student because I was dyslexic and couldn’t read very well. And so he gave me some attention and taught me to speak. And that’s what little chance I get to use it today.”

Disclaimer: I am a political analyst for CNN, which co-sponsored the debate with YouTube.