Cokie and Steven Roberts

Authenticity. That's what the YouTubers said they were trying to elicit when they submitted video questions for the Democratic debate. They were hoping to get past the candidates' canned answers, to catch a glimpse of the person behind the glib comments.

Good luck on that.

Authenticity's in short supply these days, especially on the subject of the war in Iraq. Both out on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress, the aim is to score political points rather than shape public policy.

Look at what happened in the recent Senate debate. Before the Defense Department legislation went to the floor, Republicans started peeling away from the president on Iraq. Thoughtful members of both parties sought ways to actually effect a change in policy.

But as Republicans worked with some Democrats to craft their amendments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suddenly pulled the rug out from under them. He staged an all-night session; demanded a vote on a Democratic proposal for total troop withdrawal by April 2008; then, when his party lost, as Reid knew it would, he announced there would be no more votes on Iraq. The next day he saw in newspapers exactly the headline he wanted: "Republicans Block Senate Vote on Iraq Troop Withdrawal."

Someone who authentically wanted to alter administration policy would have welcomed the chance to work with two powerful former committee chairmen, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and John Warner, R-Va., to produce a proposal the White House and Defense Department would be forced to take seriously. But Reid was determined to deny Republican Senate candidates a vote against current Iraq policy. He chose instead to play to the Democratic base's demand for immediate troop withdrawal, even though he knew he would not be accomplishing that end.

All of the Democratic candidates for president in the Senate voted with their party. But at the YouTube debate they admitted that withdrawal by next April would be impossible.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said withdrawal will be complicated, that it will take many months. "We don't want more loss of American life and Iraqi life as we attempt to withdraw." Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., amplified, "It's time to start to tell the truth." That truth, said the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is that if withdrawal started today it would take at least a year to get 160,000 troops out of Iraq. Hello? What was that Senate vote?

In Biden's defense, he was the only one of the candidates who responded to the YouTube debate's quirky format in the spirit intended. By having "ordinary Americans" send in videotaped questions, CNN, which broadcast the exchange, and the Democratic Party, which sanctioned it, expected to learn what voters really care about. Those voters said they wanted to get past the candidates' talking points. We have a lot of sympathy for that. For years, we've tried to coax politicians into saying something real. Any attempt at unearthing authenticity is welcome.

But for the most part, the debate failed in that effort. Only when a gun enthusiast referred to his automatic weapon as his "baby" and Biden responded, "If that is his baby, he needs help," did we see a flash of realism while the other candidates gave tortured answers to their positions on gun control.

At the end of the debate, a questioner asked the Democrats to tell the audience something good and something bad about the person standing to their left: "And remember, be honest." Honesty quickly fell victim to the candidates' gushy compliments about one another. John Edwards, whose wife has championed him as a women's advocate, commented on Clinton's clothes as a humorous way to say something negative, leaving Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to defend the New York senator's sartorial style. Would this happen to a male candidate? Maybe there was a bit of authenticity in that exchange.

But the honest answer came again from Biden: "I think this is a ridiculous exercise." He's right. But it was a harmless one. The exercise in the Senate was not. There the Democrats owe it to the troops to make an authentic attempt to deal with the war in Iraq.

Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at