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Democracy on (Internet) Prime Time

I’m all about free video clips on YouTube, but the recent Democratic debates constitute a category of their own. CNN and YouTube teamed up to bring questions to the candidates straight from you, webcammed America. It may have been tacky, it may have been a ploy that let the candidates continue to mouth their stale rhetoric, but at least it was a great help to those of us without cable, because the answers got posted on YouTube, as well.

I’m struck by the great diversity—of technical quality, of political savvy—and by the candidates’ highly varied abilities to relax for half a moment. Some schmuck asked Senator Clinton (why can no one call her that?) if she thinks a woman president could be taken seriously by the Arab world. Quite rightly, and with a slightly wry tone, Sen. Clinton explained that there are other countries in the world with female leaders—like Germany, and India—and they seem to be doing okay on the stage of international diplomacy. What she did not point out was that the gender of our great leader is definitely not the thing currently afflicting our current foreign policy. Nor did she point out that getting fair shakes right here in the enlightened West can sometimes be trying for a female candidate as well. (I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the Great Cleavage Insanity until I can talk about it sans nausea.)

There were plenty of religious questions, including one truly righteous query from Rev. Reggie Longcrier about the legitimacy of using religion to deny gays the right to marriage, given that America is now mostly in consensus that it was probably wrong to use religion to justify slavery, segregation and to keep women from voting. John Edwards has an interesting response to this, which is that although he feels “tremendous personal conflict” over the issue, he doesn’t think his personal religious beliefs should collide with the law. This is something I’d like all politicians to talk about more, because let’s face it: you can’t get elected president right now if you don’t have a great deal to say about your faith.

To what extent can politicians—or leaders—separate their internal churches and states? I’m not sure. I do think mainstream Christian candidates—that being, I think, all of the Democrats and far fewer of the Republicans (where you’ve got at least two Catholics and a Mormon)—have the advantage of not having to explain as many of the trapping of their religion, but the onus of exploring that relationship—between personal faith and personal power—remains. The only Jew to try it in recent memory, on a national stage, is Joe Lieberman, and I think there was so much wrapped up in the Jewishness there—and the education of the public about what a religious Jew thinks and does—that the relationship between religion and policy went less explored. (Incidentally, Barak Obama is the only candidate to actually say what I think about gay marriage, and he tends to bungle the explanation every time. That’s what happens when you don’t think in soundbites. Essentially, he points out that “marriage” is a concept that religious institutions provide, and while he would never force those institutions to alter their social policy, he would divorce [pun intended] all rights from religious marriage. Health-care decisions for loved ones, pension-sharing, adoption—these, Sen. Obama says, are civil rights. I love it. One of my favorite games is to ask people who say “I don’t have any problem with gay people, but I think marriage is between a man and a woman” to explain what the difference is—legally—between a civil union and marriage. Everybody keeps coming back to the God thing, and we all know my opinion on government and the God thing mixing together.)

And who didn’t love hearing “I am proud to run as a woman”? I started dancing around my living room. And, in answer to being asked if Elizabeth Edwards was right in saying that her husband would be better for women that Sen. Clinton, the senator listed her extremely long credentials and reminded us that it’s nice to hear candidates fight about who will do the most for women. For just a bit of a change, you know.

The Republicans have their shot at a YouTube debate in September. Those interested in huddling around my laptop with beer and cookies should let me know. As Molly Ivins always said, best free entertainment in the world.

–Mel Weiss