boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe
Elise Waxenberg

For the people, by the people

When I told my dad a few evenings ago that I'd be opining about a YouTube/CNN Democratic presidential debate for boston.com, he was overjoyed.

"So what's YouToot?" he asked.

I guess last night's forum was not intended to rope in the baby boomer crowd, but it worked for me; then again, I am of a generation that allegedly votes more for American Idol than it does for political races.

As I explained to my father, YouTube is a pretty cool -- like $1.65 billion cool -- website where people post videos of you-name-it. And so it was last night, though CNN turned down clips with little kids, chicken suits, and Viking horns in favor of more adult questions for the eight '08 Democratic candidates.

For the people, by the people. Also by YouTube, Google, CNN, and zippy moderator Anderson Cooper. The filtered of-the-people flair provided a ripe opportunity for former North Carolina Senator John Edwards to turn the Citadel into another stop from last week's "poverty tour," declaring in two rants that he would take down big, mean drug and oil companies.

Other questions on the minimum wage, public schools and taxes invited the candidates to talk about building equality and casting bigger and better safety nets. But one safety net that no one seemed to know how to fix was Social Security.

When I received my first bona fide paycheck just a few weeks ago, I skimmed down the page in anguish, horrified that Social Security sucks up so much of my hard-earned bottom line. All Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Arizona Governor Bill Richardson could console me with last night was a "bipartisan solution" and "bipartisan effort" before the debate moved on -- not so comforting when I can probably kiss these and all my future Social Security dollars goodbye forever.

At least there was a question on Social Security; immigration only earned brief mention in a healthcare discussion. Maybe that could be expected, though, since most undocumented workers probably don't have webcams and high-speed Internet.

Parents of soldiers in Iraq wielded webcams poignantly to pose questions on the war. Only Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich attacked his party's inaction, saying 2006 voters "didn't expect us to give them a Democratic version of the war." Point Kucinich. But just as his time ran out, he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a cell phone and hastily implored me to text "PEACE" if I want peace. I do, but still, it kind of spoiled the moment.

Fast forward over an hour, when Obama's 30-second campaign video invited the audience to send a text message with the word "CHANGE." But this time, when Obama asked me to text for change, it was somehow a valid method of registering dissent, without the slightest hint of absurdity.

Unfortunately, Kucinich couldn't make my fingers itch the same way with his YouTube mini-mercial, in which he exhorted viewers, four times in 30 seconds, to send him PEACE. Nonetheless, he sheepishly smiled at his (staff's) masterpiece when it was time for his Oscar-like zoom-in during the clip.

But the candidates' mini-mercials weren't what the show was about.

Nor, really, was it about their answers, which you could generally find in transcripts from the three previous forums. Anyone looking to connect with a figure on stage could best find that connection with the YouTubers, who asked the questions on everyone's mind and expressed the broader frustrations of a disenchanted public. Their questions were genuine, and far less curveball than some may have expected -- except one on reparations and another on meeting authoritarian leaders, for which Venezula's President Hugo Chavez may call Obama asking if his invite was lost in the mail (classically cool, calm and collected Senator Hillary Clinton of New York managed not to commit to any such meetings with dictators).

In hard-won states like South Carolina, Iowa, and New Hampshire, where I go to school, you can get the in-the-flesh version of the candidates' mini-mercials when they stump around town. I'll state the obvious, but true: Most people don't get that face-to-face opportunity.

So although 3,000 videos submitted is a paltry number next to tens of millions of votes for American Idol, the hype might be worth it. If CNN and YouTube can cook up something like the Superbowl for politics, where people tune in for the commercials and accidentally catch the game, then hats off to them for raising America's political awareness just a smidge. Even if the format hooks more viewers simply because they want to see their snowman, or their bathroom, or their gun "baby" on TV, then that's a good thing.

Elise Waxenberg is a senior at Dartmouth College and executive editor of The Dartmouth.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES