The YouTube presidential debate actually lived up to its hype. For about two hours last night, American political discourse was more genuine, diverse and - just as the Internet visionaries promised - more authentic than most days on the campaign trail.
CNN presented compelling homemade videos on a wide range of topics. Volunteers called for intervention in Darfur, as they stood amidst children in a refuge camp. One Michigan resident asked for the candidates' views on gun control while brandishing a huge assault riffle, which prompted Joe Biden to note that the guy "needs help." Stephen Sorta, a middle aged Californian, pressed the candidates with an idea that sparked one of the most revealing exchanges of the evening. He asked the candidates to commit, during their first year in the White House, to unconditional meetings with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to "bridge the gap that divides our countries." Obama seized the idea, committing to the meetings and aggressive diplomatic engagement, while also blasting the Bush administration's "ridiculous" notion that "not talking to countries is punishment." It was a fine answer for Democratic voters fed up with Bush's cowboy foreign policy. But then Clinton and Edwards both offered much deeper responses, worth quoting in full:
CLINTON: Well, 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. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy.
And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But 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.
COOPER: Senator Edwards, would you meet with Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il?
EDWARDS: Yes, and I think actually Senator Clinton's right though. Before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work, the diplomacy, to make sure that that meeting's not going to be used for propaganda purposes, will not be used to just beat down the United States of America in the world community.
But I think this is just a piece of a bigger question, which is, what do we actually do? What should the president of the United States do to restore America's moral leadership in the world. It's not enough just to lead with bad leaders. In addition to that, the world needs to hear from the president of the United States about who we are, what it is we represent.
EDWARDS: That, in fact, we believe in equality, we believe in diversity, that they are at the heart and soul of what the United States of America is.
Edwards and Clinton are right to emphasize that Bush's incompetent rejection of diplomacy cannot simply be replaced with diplomacy on the cheap. Even American allies have to jockey for presidential level meetings, so the dictators and tyrants of the world don't deserve speed diplomacy for nothing in return. But that doesn't mean it was a bad question. I actually think Mr. Sorta's idealistic, big picture question is precisely the kind of issue that voters care about -- and the traditional media often refuses to raise. As CNN producer David Bohrman recently explained, many YouTube entries were great because they pose "straightforward, interesting questions that the mainstream media couldn't -- or wouldn't -- think to ask."
There were a lot of questions like that last night. And there should be more on the way, at the Republicans' YouTube debate in September, the YearlyKos candidate forum next month (more information and disclosure here), and hopefully in another round of citizen-driven campaign events during the general election.