The Democrats' YouTube debate is surprisingly entertaining.
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.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Sens. John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama at the CNN/YouTube debate by Stan Honday/AFP/Getty Images.