It’s often said in town hall-style forums that a particular question is loaded — that is, it’s designed either to be unanswerable or to give its respondent an easy way to segue into their talking points.
In many ways, tonight’s YouTube/CNN Democratic presidential debate was a Web 2.0 town hall — participants filmed YouTube videos containing questions for the candidates, and several were chosen by CNN to be used in the debate. But were they softballs, or daggers intended to hurt one candidate or another?
CNN’s Anderson Cooper made clear at the top of the event that many video questions did not make the cut for one reason or another. From this answer, we have to assume that CNN did their best to screen out questions that were inappropriate, clearly targeted at one candidate or another, or coordinated by one of the presidential campaigns (Joe Biden was caught giving supporters a script to read when recording questions on Iraq).
But beyond the obvious, which questions were tough, and which were easy?
Whether by design or because the questions got easier, the group of Democrats onstage improved as the debate went on. Hillary Clinton received a targeted question on whether she considers herself a liberal — this is a dangerous question for her, because she has carefully crafted a moderate image in preparation for a general election campaign. However, it’s also a question for which she has prepared, and she was ready with a concise answer: she calls herself a “modern progressive,” which she contends is a better, less pejorative term for her political ideals.
The ubiquitous Hurricane Katrina/FEMA/New Orleans question also offered a chance for an easy stump speech. Senator Chris Dodd and Governor Bill Richardson were ready to jump on the now well-known details of the Bush Administration’s failures in the aftermath of Katrina, especially with regard to race and class.
Tony from Ohio asked an interesting question about whether women should register for the draft, and drew general agreement from all the candidates onstage as each sought to offer anecdotes on the topic as they agreed with one another.
But the biggest softballs went to the frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, on issues of race and gender. Multiple questions on these topics offered the two candidates open platforms to challenge head on the criticisms they have faced so far.
A health care video montage may have been a dud for CNN — with several disparate questions on health care, it provided the candidates with an easy way to put forth their platform positions instead of answering any specific question.
There were several questions that contained poison for one reason or another. The question of support for gay marriage was a particularly tenuous one for former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, who spent considerable effort explaining that while he does not support gay marriage, he supports civil unions that reflect all the civil rights accompanying marriage.
The location of the debate also had to be taken into account: South Carolina is home to a large, Democratic-leaning, primary-voting black population. When the question of reparations for slavery came up, it presented Edwards with a challenge: to state unequivocally that he does not support reparations, but pivot quickly to his main platform plank of solving poverty in America. Obama, the only black candidate, also stood against reparations, and made a somewhat less smooth transition to investment in public education.
The last set of questions seemed to focus on non-bread-and-butter issues for the Democrats: God and guns, two of the Republicans’ Three G’s (gays being the third). Although his response will likely not win him any friends in the NRA, Joe Biden called into question the mental health of a questioner who appeared onscreen with an assault rifle, and turned a dangerous question into a biographical review on his role in the Senate.
As noted above, the event became more interesting as its participants, Anderson Cooper included, settled into a format with which none of them had previously worked. Questions on energy policy, Social Security, and even sex education elicited thoughtful, sometimes candid responses from all the candidates onstage — especially Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, who, as minor candidates, have a need for some theatrics in events like this one.
Most of the first- and second-tier candidates did a reasonably good job adjusting to the questions being thrown at them, usually by opening with a general statement and quite clearly formulating a direct answer as they spoke. Clinton was well-prepared as always, Obama transitioned from simple answers to more eloquent statements as usual, Edwards pivoted to his wheelhouse issues of poverty and economic justice issues several times. Chris Dodd focused on experience, as did Joe Biden, but Bill Richardson appeared to have trouble stringing together small policy goals into coherent ideas in the small time allotted for each answer.
So — are you looking forward to this debate’s Republican counterpart in September?