I didn't watch the debate on television last night. Not because of my usual superciliousness, but because I was sitting in the audience at the Citadel. Beforehand, I went to the "VIP" reception and ate a couple of dry pimiento cheese sandwichettes, some melon balls and nursed a Diet Coke. (I'm a hardcore party animal, kiddies.) I looked through the crowd for people I knew. There were a few, but evidently I'm only on the very fringes of VIP-ism, since you could put all the people I knew there in my VW.
They trucked us over to the auditorium and locked us in at 6. Thanks to the Blessed Mother I had found a men's room on the way in. It would be 9:15 before I'd get another chance. At my age, going 3 hours without a pee break is dangerous business. I was sitting with an acquaintence, a former Tommy Moore staffer, and we made silly small talk around the uncomfortable fact that Tommy has become a Sith Lord.
The producer came out to tell the crowd how to clap and cheer and to let us know that it was last call for the toilets. (I should have gone then, but I'm inclined to suffering.) Anderson Cooper paced around the stage, worrying aloud that he wasn't sure if the thing would work, if the videos would play, if the sponsors would like it. The debate started with an invocation (yeah, Dems can pray in the Holy Ghost), the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthemn, none of which were broadcast to the great hordes of Democratic secular faithful who would have been shocked at such a Republican mixture of priestcraft and statecraft.
Finally, the candidates came out, accompanied by cadets in their dress whites. A small applause arose for Gravel, a bit more for Dodd and Edwards, explosions for Clinton and Obama, and then the gradual dimunition as Richardson and Biden came out. The audience seemed amused that Kucinich was there, but the smattering of claps and cheers owed much to the fact that, after 90 long minutes, we would finally begin.
And suddenly I was watching television, on a huge screen, with an audio syncopation that made the You Tube videos seem even more comical than they do on my laptop. It was democracy, netroots style. Howard Dean was on cloud nine, but there were things about the You Tube questions that I hated, including the fact that at least one was from a paid staffer of a lobbying group. I know, because I know who this person is and where she works. I wonder how many other videos were paid for by fat cats trying to influence the debate.
The best thing about the You Tube questions was that they didn't come from Anderson Cooper. Most of them were harder, purer, more confrontational. The usual political answers fell flatter than they would have otherwise. Rambling, stump speech answers appeared as just that. Some of the You Tubers were there in audience, and a couple of them stood up to say that their questions really weren't answered, which is more than Cooper would have done. Lobbyists aside (I'm one, after all), this was a revolutionary moment in our political conversation. No televised debate will ever be the same.
All night, Gravel whined that he didn't get enough time to promote his EU-style "fair tax" and "school choice." (This guy is a Democrat, right? Scratch him.) Dodd and Biden tried to sound experienced, but came across as mirror images of each other. (Scratch, scratch.) Richardson, who is the only one of the group with any executive experience, came across as nearly W-level incoherent. (Move to the "Unlikely" column.) Kucinich was all granolaed-up and kept going on about "texting peace," which was impossible, since Security made me leave my Blackberry outside. (Started out scratched.) That left Edwards, Obama and Clinton.
Edwards, who spoofed his $400 haircut in his You Tube campaign ad, tried to sound sincere about poverty and low-income families. I liked that, and put a couple of points after his name. (I don't have enough hair left to spend 20 bucks, much less 20 times that for a haircut, but I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow I was being had, especially when he made the unfortunate comment about Clinton's neon-peach jacket. Scratch.)
So it comes down to Clinton and Obama, as if anyone else ever counted. Clinton, who never missed a cue, was clearly in her element. She sounded tougher, more nuanced, more Presidential. How could this be? Am I crazy? Do I really want Clinton II? Can the sequel ever be as good as the original? Do I really want to insure that Ann Coulter will still have books to write and Rush Limbuagh can still push "moral values" through a blue cloud of meth smoke?
My seatmate sighed during the last commercial break. "It just doesn't seem right that the Clinton's can just decide that she should be President, and no matter who else runs, wham! It happens." It just doesn't seem right, when you put it like that.
But Obama's ship of audacious hope crashed on the shoals of realpolitik when he said of course he'd go meet with Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro. It was not just a gaffe, it was a very telling moment about which one of these two has the experience to be President. Of course we've got to end the hubris of Empire. Of course we have to bring back diplomacy as a central tool of foreign policy. But this debate revealed something about Obama that many of us have been feeling for awhile: he needs more time. I'm not sure that the next six months will be enough.
I've got that "H" sticker on my dresser. One more performance like this, and I'm putting it on my bumper.