YouTube Debate

I was apparently the only political blogger who didn’t watch the YouTube debates last night. My conscience is clear, though, in that I’m exceedingly unlikely to vote in the Democratic primaries, Virginia doesn’t hold primaries for six and a half months (February 12), transcripts would be available online in short order, and I found the whole “have journalists choose from among thousands of video questions and then pretend that this is somehow a grassroots thing” premise rather gimmicky.

Still, it appears some substantive exchanges took place. Ben Smith highlights the foreign policy debate:

Amid the entertainment of a talking snowman and rapping education advocate, however, the candidates drew clear distinctions on crucial questions of foreign policy in a debate that circled repeatedly around Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s positions on the war in Iraq. “We don’t want more loss of American life and Iraqi life as we attempt to withdraw, and it is time for us to admit that it’s going to be complicated, so let’s start it now,” the New York senator said. “I have done extensive work on this. And the best estimate is that we can probably move a brigade a month, if we really accelerate it, maybe a brigade and a half or two a month. That is a lot of months,” she said, offering rare detail on the difficulty of a rapid withdrawal.

President Bush’s “surge” calls for stationing 20 combat brigades in Iraq, numbering between 3,500 and 5,000 troops each, along with thousands of support personnel.

Clinton was agreeing with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who ridiculed New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s goal of bringing all the soldiers home within six months. “Let’s get something straight. It’s time to start to tell the truth,” Biden bellowed in response to Richardson’s optimism, appearing to thrive in the looser atmosphere of the YouTube debate.

That Biden is speaking with candor on this issue isn’t surprising; he’s been doing it for years and, frankly, he’s got nothing to lose. Clinton certainly gets points, though, for doing it as the frontrunner. The temptation to tell the base what they want to hear is awfully difficult to resist.

Also interesting:

Clinton also took criticism from Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois for her pre-war judgment. “The time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in,” he said. “And that is something that too many of us failed to do.”

What might have been a clean blow to Clinton on an important distinction between the two, however, suffered when Obama agreed to a demand from a bearded YouTube user, Californian Stephen Sixta, that candidates promise to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Iran within the first year of a presidency.

Obama promptly received lectures on foreign policy from Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. “Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year,” Clinton said. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. … Certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

Elsewhere, some pretty smart people fell for the debate’s premise.

Spencer Overton: “A significant number of questioners were people of color and/or addressed issues of race and class, and I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps because of the digital divide, one might have assumed that this debate would have overlooked issues critical to people of color. That was not the case.”

Andrew Sullivan: “If you’re sick of people like me on television, or worse, then the direct questions from regular voters and non-voters must have been a breath of extremely fresh air . . . . More, please.”

Ed Morrissey: “YouTube and its citizen journalists missed the boat. The questions ranged from the inane to … well, the inane.”

John Podhoretz: “[T]his YouTube debate is so far and away the best of the Democratic debates, with interesting questions and answers, that it may actually be revolutionary.”

But the questions weren’t randomly selected; they were picked by the same people who would have been doing so, anyway. The only thing “revolutionary” was that “ordinary people” recorded the questions on YouTube.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I was apparently the only political blogger who didn’t watch the YouTube debates last night.

    No, you’re not.

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    There was a debate last night?

    I think they should be curtailed, less hot air, and with global warming about to destroy the planet, this was simply unconscionable.

    And if the questions were selected by the journalists who would have selected/formulated questions anyways, what is the big deal besides it being on the internets?

  3. This was a time-shifted town hall debate format. I hate those because most of the time the people asking the questions don’t really know what their talking about. (Begin throwing out “elitist” rotten fruit.)

    Even some irreverent videos couldn’t fix the fundamental problem of these debates: there are too many candidates. There’s hardly any interaction. Divide the candidates in half so we can see where these people really differ if they do. Give these blowhards some space to–well–blow.

    And if Mike Gravel complains about not getting enough time one more time….

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I will definitely vote in the Democratic primary in 2008. Not that it will do any good by the time it’s Illinois’s turn. I have no interest in these early debates.

    I’m not interested in how the hair of the candidates is cut or how low their necklines are. I’m not interested in hearing either journalists or non-journalists lob softball questions at candidates and get stump speech answers in return. I faithfully read the position papers that the candidates post on their campaign web sites and attempt to keep up with informed commentary in the media and blogosphere. Not that there’s much of that.

    I’d like to see real honest-to-gosh debates rather than these group press conferences marketed as debates. The town hall format is even more infuriating because they’re illusions. Pre-selection is everything.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    To make it even more interesting let Republicans pick the questions for the Democrats and Democrats pick the questions for the Republican debate.

    I would also like to see a strong moderator who would force the candidates to stay on the question asked.

  6. I would also like to see a strong moderator who would force the candidates to stay on the question asked.

    I thought Anderson Cooper did ok. He tried stopping Kuninich from pumping his texting campaign and keep a few people on topic. But when you have a crowd with such banal content you can’t do much.