Review: The CNN-YouTube presidential debate

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The first question in presidential debate history to not come from a moderator came courtesy of Chris, a thin white man sitting at a small table at his home in Portland, Ore. In his video, he wore a goatee, baseball cap, two small earings and tattoos were visible on his arms. Using what could possibly be the first ironic air quotes in presidential debate history, he asked the candidates to please do something "revolutionary" and answer questions directly instead of "beating around the bush." Then he leaned toward the screen and cut his Webcam off.

Cut to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, brow handsomely furrowed, who offered, "We have no idea if this is going to work."

But the CNN-YouTube debate did work Monday, albeit fitfully. The videos that followed were at turns funny, personal, and esoteric -- an unpredictability that mimicked a casual browse through YouTube itself.

Rob Porter from Irvine, Calif., wanted to know Hillary's definition of "liberal." Will from Massachusetts asked about reparations for slavery. Two lesbians from Brooklyn wanted to know if they would be allowed to be married.

This wasn't the YouTube best known as a forum for skateboarding dogs, though those moments were apparent, too. About halfway through the debate, CNN showcased the work of Red State Update, a pair of comedians from Tennesee who asked whether the media's infatuation with Al Gore hurt the other candidates' feelings. (Joe Biden: "I think the people of Tennessee just got their feelings hurt.") The next clip featured a melting snowman asking about the candidates' policies on global warming.

At times, the questioners were cynical about the government. Several alluded to the candidates' inability to make government work, or to provide for all citizens equally, or keep their promises. Almost every question, Barack Obama noticed, reflected cynicism.

But how amazing at least to see YouTube, like some kind of Hurricane Katrina for national debate, reveal the frustration of those living amidst the ruins.

When the candidates tried to dodge a question or go off on a tangent, Cooper did an admirable job of restraining them. But despite the relative intimacy of the question format, some of the candidates maintained that stentorian made-for-TV facade. The citizens asking the questions were so (for lack of a better term) "real" that you almost wished the candidates were wearing jeans, too.

If there was anything strange or off-putting about the debate, it was that CNN chose to showcase one campaign video from each candidate. Cooper referred to these as "YouTube-style" videos, as if the promise of YouTube were merely an aesthetic. And why show ads anyway? Isn't a debate supposed to be about conversation?

This go-round it was the audience that asked questions from their living rooms. But don't be surprised if next year the candidates are answering questions from home, too. Maybe in jeans. And a baseball cap. With a skateboarding dog.
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