Democrats Face Voter Questions in New Format
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GWEN IFILL: It was yet another candidates’ forum, but last night, the questions came from Internet-savvy Democrats.
REMY MUNASIFI, McLean, Virginia: My taxes put some kids through college, I can’t afford to send myself. Now, tell me, if you were elected president, what would you do to help?
GWEN IFILL: YouTube, the wildly successful Internet video-sharing service, joined with CNN to host the debate at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. CNN screened 3,000 submissions. The ones that aired ranged from serious and emotional…
CHARITY WOODS, South Carolina: Hi, these are my grandmothers. Both of them suffered from diabetes and ultimately died of massive heart attacks. This is my mother. She suffers from diabetes, and she’s also had a heart attack.
GWEN IFILL: … to cheeky and irreverent.
SNOWMAN: I’ve been growing concerned that global warming, the single most important issue to the snowmen of this country, is being neglected.
GWEN IFILL: Although the candidates never questioned each other directly, their differences were on full display, especially on foreign policy. One video questioner, a mother whose son is deploying to Iraq for a second time, asked if Democrats are putting politics before conscience when it comes to the war.
MOTHER OF SOLDIER DEPLOYED IN IRAQ: Is the reason that we are still in Iraq, and seemingly will be for some time, due to the Democrats’ fear that blame for the loss of the war will be placed on them by the Republican spin machine?
GWEN IFILL: Senator Hillary Clinton said the Bush administration is to blame.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: … in fact, I asked the Pentagon a simple question: Have you prepared for withdrawing our troops? In response, I got a letter accusing me of being unpatriotic, that I shouldn’t be asking questions. Well, one of the problems is that there are a lot of questions that we’re asking, but we’re not getting answers from the Bush administration.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Barack Obama countered that Senator Clinton, who originally voted for the war, shares some of that blame.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I think it’s terrific that she’s asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous. But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in. And that is something that too many of us failed to do.
GWEN IFILL: Clinton and Obama sparred more than once, when he suggested that, as president, he would meet with leaders in Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous.
GWEN IFILL: Responding to Obama, Clinton took a harder line, saying any leader who agreed to such a meeting might be used for “propaganda purposes.”
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
GWEN IFILL: Another questioner asked about the difficulty of removing troops from Iraq.
YOUTUBE QUESTIONER: How do we pull out now? And isn’t it our responsibility to get these people up on their feet? I mean, do you leave a newborn baby to take care of himself? How do we pull out now?
GWEN IFILL: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said he would do it in six months.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: This is critically important: 100 American troops are dying every month, and this war is a quagmire. It’s endless.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Joe Biden rejected that as unrealistic.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: There’s not a single military man in this audience who will tell this senator he can get those troops out in six months if the order goes today. Let’s start telling the truth.
GWEN IFILL: Unlike in previous debates, more questions were devoted to domestic issues, like taxes and health care.
YOUTUBE QUESTIONER: Hi, my name is Kim. I’m 36 years old and hope to be a future breast cancer survivor from Long Island.
Speaking out on health care
GWEN IFILL: Former Senator John Edwards said government is doing too little to address health care costs for struggling Americans. He spoke, with emotion, of a man who could not speak because he could not afford to have his cleft palate repaired.
FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: Here was the problem. It was fixed when he was 50 years old. For five decades, James Lowe lived in the richest nation on the planet, not able to talk because he couldn't afford the procedure that would've allowed him to talk. When are we going to stand up and do something about this? We have talked about it too long. We have got to stand up to the insurance companies and the drug companies that Barack just spoke about. It is the only way we're ever going to bring about real change. We should be outraged by these stories!
GWEN IFILL: There was also more than one question about gay marriage.
YOUTUBE QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is Mary.
YOUTUBE QUESTIONER: And my name is Jen.
YOUTUBE QUESTIONER: And we're from Brooklyn, New York. If you were elected president of the United States, would you allow us to be married to each other?
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN Debate Moderator: Congressman Kucinich?
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: Mary and Jen, the answer to your question is yes, and let me tell you why.
Because if our Constitution really means what it says, that all are created equal, if it really means what it says, that there should be equality of opportunity before the law, then our brothers and sisters who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender should have the same rights accorded to them as anyone else, and that includes the ability to have a civil marriage ceremony.
GWEN IFILL: Because these candidates have now met in a series of forums, some were asked to defend past statements.
YOUTUBE QUESTIONER: In one of the previous debates, you said something along the lines of, "The entire deaths of Vietnam died in vain." How do you expect to win in a country where probably a pretty large chunk of the people voting disagree with that statement and might very well be offended by it?
FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: What did all these people die for? What are they dying for right now in Iraq every single day? Let me tell you: There's only one thing worse than a soldier dying in vain; it's more soldiers dying in vain.
GWEN IFILL: And in one novel twist, the candidates were each asked to provide their own YouTube-style videos. Most went for humor.
ACTOR: Senator, I have to ask, what's with the white hair?
SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: I don't know why you bring that up. Bill Richardson, Hillary, Joe Biden and I, we're all about the same age. I don't think the white hair is an issue.
ACTOR: Well, how did you get the white hair?
SEN. CHRIS DODD: Hard work, I suppose.
GWEN IFILL: Republicans will answer YouTube-generated questions in September.
So how different was this debate? And is it a sign of things to come? For that, we turn to: Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com; and Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.
Chris, how different was this, or was it different at all?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: Well, the format, Gwen, was different, as you guys have pointed out. I mean, I think we saw a little bit more openness, maybe a little bit more candor from the candidates.
The one thing I will say is, I thought there was some really good pointed questions that I had been hoping were going to be asked. The one that jumped out to me was asking about Hillary Clinton and her gender and Barack Obama and his race and how big an impediment those were going to be for their chances at the nomination. I've been wondering that. I know a lot of political insiders have been wondering that. I was glad it was asked.
But remember, Iraq, education, health care, those are the things that are always going to come up. It doesn't matter what format you choose. And those were the things that wound up dominating the debate last night.
GWEN IFILL: I'm curious, Chris. The questions that were asked that you hadn't heard before, do you think they were answered?
CHRIS CILLIZZA: Not really. You know, the unfortunate thing here is that these politicians practice long and hard for these debates to not make news, so I think we tended to not see them directly answer the questions. So Anderson Cooper, the moderator, again and again said, "Can we stay on topic? Can you answer the question?"
But these are politicians who spend a lot of time in the national public eye. They're going to sort of say their piece and that's it. So I'm not sure any format could get them to give absolutely straight answers to every question. But as I said before, I did think they were a bit more candid than they might have been in previous debates.
GWEN IFILL: Julie, how different did you think it was?
JULIE BARKO GERMANY, George Washington University: Well, you know, the interesting thing about this debate is that it was billed as a direct dialogue with the constituents. And Web video, we say, is a more intimate form of communication. We feel a little bit closer to each other when we communicate via Web video. I felt a lot closer to my fellow American voters who submitted questions during the debate. I didn't feel as close to the candidates.
GWEN IFILL: Why not?
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: It's a new medium. It requires a different type of response. Instead of hitting the talking points one after the other, a YouTube-style debate to me appears to require a little bit more communication with the people asking the questions, responding to the questioners and less to, say, the host.
GWEN IFILL: So the question that I just asked Chris, which was whether the answers were any different just because the questions seemed a little different, not necessarily?
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Not necessarily, but, then again, presidential candidates are always going to want to get their issues across.
Defining the Obama and Hillary rift
GWEN IFILL: Chris Cillizza, let me ask you about something that happened today. Apparently, the little squabble we saw between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continued, in which Hillary Clinton said that she thought Barack Obama was being naive, I think was the term, irresponsible and naive, for saying he would meet with these foreign leaders, these enemies of the state, as it were, and he responded by saying she was being irresponsible and naive for voting for the war in the first place.
Is that because that question last night spurred this to happen today, or was this a fight that was waiting to break out anyway?
CHRIS CILLIZZA: I think it's a fight that's waiting to break out, you know, depending on the issue, but it was going to come up. I think it gets back to the fundamental premise of this race, which is Clinton's experience versus Obama's fresh face and sort of idea as a change agent.
All of the debate, if you watch it through that lens, it all came through that way. Clinton time and time again saying, "I've been there," whether it's as first lady or as a senator from New York, "I've been there, I've seen how these things work. I'm not going to offer myself up to visit with these leaders because they might be using me."
Obama saying, "We need to change the way we do this. We need to just change the process. This isn't a Democrat problem; it's not a Republican problem." Again, you just had experience versus change, experience versus change. And I really think that, unless something drastic happens between now and the Iowa caucuses, that's going to be the fundamental dynamic of this race going forward.
GWEN IFILL: Julie, we heard Mike Gravel, Senator Gravel, complain last night repeatedly that he didn't feel like he was getting enough time. We've also heard that, since the last debate, Senator Edwards and Senator Clinton talk a little bit about finding a way to shrink the stage so there weren't so many people. Does that format in any way advantage or disadvantage lesser-known candidates?
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: You know, I don't think it's so much a matter of advantaging or disadvantaging candidates. I think it's a matter of using the forum differently. Instead of saving all of your energy for the debates, why not translate some of that energy into your Web presence, where you can go in depth on the issues that matter to you and talk a little bit more one-on-one with the American voters?
GWEN IFILL: So you're saying there should have been a way last night to steer people back to the Web and away from television?
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: If I had been a candidate up there, and I had been talking about an issue, let's say the war in Iraq, one of the first things I probably would have done would be to direct people back to my Web site for more information on what I feel. And then I might have opened the Web site up to the American voters. Why don't you give me your suggestions? How do you feel about it? Submit them by video; submit them by e-mail. We'll post them on the site and discuss them later on.
GWEN IFILL: And which voters -- I'm just curious about that -- which voters would they be reaching who they wouldn't be reaching by television if they did it that way?
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: They tend to reach voters who are a little bit younger, but not necessarily. They're people with Internet access, so that leaves out some of the American population. But they tend to be people who go online for news and information about current events and politics.
A range of candidate popularity
GWEN IFILL: Chris, we talk about the top tier. We talked about Senators Obama and Clinton who are leading in most of the polls. And we talk about the also-rans kind of at the lower end. There's a vast middle among these eight candidates. Are they using these forums and in a forum like last night in particular to break through in any way?
CHRIS CILLIZZA: You know, I actually think that, as I've watched these debates -- and this is the fourth Democratic one we've had already -- as I've watched them, the margin between the best performance and the worst performance gets smaller and smaller.
I felt like last night -- you know, I do a winners and losers column at WashingtonPost.com -- I had trouble picking losers, just because I thought everybody did pretty well. But the problem for people like Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd is that they really need a breakthrough, a big moment. And these debates haven't given them that yet.
I thought Dennis Kucinich did quite well last night. I thought Joe Biden did quite well. I thought Bill Richardson was better than he had been. And I thought Chris Dodd did well. But the problem is, what did we learn or see last night that fundamentally alters the dynamic, which is Clinton, Obama and possibly Edwards? I don't think we saw all that much that is going to make people who are watching think about this race in a different way.
GWEN IFILL: Julie, does citizen participation help or matter at all in that kind of effort that Chris is talking about, ways for the middle tier to break through?
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Yes, it certainly can. We can look at what the supporters of Ron Paul are doing online to get his name out through social media.
GWEN IFILL: Republican candidate.
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: That's right. It's a Republican candidate. Every time there's an article about Ron Paul or a YouTube video, his supporters flock to these social media sites and they click on it. And by clicking on it, they're registering their affinity and vote for it, and it goes up higher in the rankings, so it looks like he has a tremendous amount of support around him.
GWEN IFILL: What other ways exist to expand the audience out there for these debates? This did not get huge ratings, by the way.
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: That's what I saw. It didn't get huge ratings. You know, a lot of what we do online isn't as effective unless we have a very strong offline component to it. And some emerging offline components include using things like text messages to send questions to candidates.
This has actually been a very interesting tool that's emerging in other countries. Some elected officials in, for example, New Zealand will allow their constituents to text message them questions, which they then answer, not necessarily in a debate forum, but this sort of thing could be applied to televised debates.
GWEN IFILL: OK, Julie Barko Germany and Chris Cillizza, thank you both very much.
CHRIS CILLIZZA: Thanks, Gwen.
JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: For more on the presidential campaign, including daily candidate updates, visit our Web site at PBS.org.