Surprise Loser in YouTube Debate: Anderson Cooper
I'm not sure who actually won tonight's CNN/YouTube debate -- distinguished mostly by the top candidates dancing around a series of surprisingly astute questions fielded from the public through the video sharing Web site.
But I know who lost: Host Anderson Cooper.
Clearly overmatched and a little surprised by the increased squabbling among the candidates, Cooper lost control of the debate too many times -- allowing candidates to eat up time with long stretches of one-on-one arguments, and refusing to call out politicians when they avoided answering the questions asked.
For example, one YouTuber faced the camera and said "The death penalty: What would Jesus do?" And even though Mike Huckabee spent long minutes recounting how he debated handing out death sentence as Governor of Arkansas, he never got to Jesus' part. When Cooper pressed him to answer the question, he said cracked: "Jesus was too smart to run for public office." Answer over.
When Fred Thompson provided a YouTube-style campaign video for CNN which used past clips of Mitt Romney defending abortion and Huckabee appearing to agree to raise taxes, Cooper asked about the attack by saying "Senator Thompson -- What's up with that?" (Thompson looked a little embarrassed before cracking "I just wanted to give my buddies a little more air time.")
The candidates weren't directly confronted about their inability to answer some questions until Cooper turned to Brigadier Gen. Keith Kerr, a retired military man sitting in the audience who castigated the candidates for failing to answer his question about whether they think the American military isn't professional enough to work alongside openly gay people.
Unfortunately, Kerr turned a rebuke for non-answers into a speech about his own story of coming out after leaving military service and the continuing discrimination against gay people in the armed forces. It was another example of how Cooper let an element of the show spin out of CNN's control, violating the channel's own goal of weeding out "gotcha" questions posed by Democrats to embarrass all the candidates.
(Now Republican bloggers and Fox News are reporting that Kerr was a member of a steering committee of gay supporters for Hillary Clinton; Cooper said during his show, Anderson Cooper 360, that CNN would not have used his question if they knew this allegation was true).
Every candidate dropped at least one doozy of a statement: Huckabee wants to eliminate the IRS and rely on retail sales taxes to run the government (he should ask Florida how well that works); Ron Paul wants to eliminate the departments of Energy and Education; John McCain blamed the American people's homefront reactions for losing the Vietnam War while Fred Thompson said overturning the abortion law Roe vs. Wade should be America's "number One priority" and Romney advocated denying the children of illegal immigrants the most basic health and education services.
The America advocated by this bunch sounded like a mean-spirited, paranoid place, where politicians are more comfortable pledging to kick the children of illegal immigrants out of the country than pledging to take on government subsidies handed to big farming companies. (One upsetting moment for me: Duncan Hunter telling the American people to buy American while Christmas shopping when American retailers such as Wal-Mart are stocked to the gills with cheap goods made in China, Korea and Vietnam. Is he going to insist they buy American this Christmas, too?)
Cooper aside, Romney came out the biggest loser here. At turns too slick and too halting, he managed to reinforce his image as a flip-flopper and an overly programmed candidate. McCain sat above much of the infighting like a wise Yoda -- particularly on the issue of waterboarding military prisoners -- but can't get past his support for immigration reform and a still-unpopular war. Thompson showed more life and knowledge of the issues, but offered few new ideas, leaving Huckabee in a great position as the most reasonable, human-sounding candidate who wasn't really attacked very badly during the debate.
My next post will talk a bit about the backstage stuff, including info on the "spin room," where celebrities such as action star Chuck Norris and former Senator George "Macaca" Allen were spinning journalists on the debate's outcome.
Here's the acoustic ballad which kicked off the debate: