Maybe it was the YouTube factor: Normal people asking direct questions in plain language. Maybe it was the unexpectedly left-leaning crowd gathered in Charleston to watch the Democrats debate, enthusiastically cheering even the kookiest of Kucinichisms. Or perhaps it was the Citadel Effect.

Could it be that the same reckless spirit that inspired a group of foolhardy Citadel students to fire on federal forces in 1860 fell upon the candidates Monday night, bolstering their bravado and casting caution to the wind?

Whatever the cause, a minor political miracle took place at the You Tube/CNN debate. A group of politicians running for president actually told the truth.

Political events normally involve the usual suspects getting the usual questions and giving the usual answer. The goal in most debates is to not say anything the voters will remember. (For fourth tier candidates like Mike Gravel, that includes your name.)

So when Tony Fuller from Wilson, Ohio asked, via YouTube video, “if the candidates feel women should register for the draft when they turn 18. Why or why not?” I was expecting to hear plenty about how the candidates “feel,” but not much about the idea of females forced into military service.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Well, yes, I think they should,” answered Sen. Dodd. OK, so “President Chris Dodd” is about as likely as “WNBA Commissioner Don Imus.” But then Sen. Clinton gave her answer.

“I do,” she said, without missing a beat. No “on the one hand, on the other” about gender equity or the value of public service. Instead, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination simply stated for the record that any future military conscription will include teenage girls. ‘Nuff said.

When Sen. Obama was asked if he would meet “without precondition, during the first year of your administration” with (among others) Jew-hating terror sponsor Mahmoud Ahmed-Whack-I-Job, he immediately announced “I would!”

No pandering to those who reject such a one-on-one meeting with a terrorist whose government is, right now, murdering Americans in Iraq and holding American citizens hostage (i.e. “rational people.”) Not Sen. Obama. He’s ready to book a first-class flight to Tehran today!

But not on an eco-destructive private jet, of course.

And when Lucia Ballie from East L.A. asked, “Does your health care plan cover undocumented workers?” I thought to myself “Hey, nobody’s dumb enough to fall for this one.”

Then I heard Gov. Bill Richardson happily announce “Yes, it would. [Tax-funded health care] should cover everybody. In this country, no matter who you are, whether you’re a ditch-digger, you’re a teacher … every American deserves the right to the best possible quality health care.”

That’s right: Gov. Richardson believes you should be responsible for the health care of “every American” — Central Americans, South Americans …

And every Democrat who answered the question agreed with him, too. Safe within the walls of the Citadel, laughing at Tennessee rednecks and chattering snow men, the candidates let it all hang out. Higher income taxes, higher gas taxes, higher heating bills (“carbon taxes”) — by the time it was over, I half-expected to see Dennis Kucinich and Hillary Clinton arm-in-arm singing “The Internationale.”

The one glaring — or perhaps I should say “gaping” — exception was John Edwards. His tortured answer to the question about faith and same-sex marriage was as painful as it was idiotic. His answer eventually boiled down to “Jesus is against it, but my wife Elizabeth is for it.”

And yet even Edwards felt comfortable enough at the Citadel to let loose a catty comment about Hillary’s coat — a particularly reckless act for a candidate whose most popular policy position is government-subsidized hair care.

But Edwards let it fly. They all did. It was “The Democrats, Unplugged,” and for two hours we were bombarded with unvarnished talk about higher taxes, more government programs, entitlements for illegal immigrants, and hatred of George W. Bush.

How many mentions of “Islamic terrorism?” Zero.

The Citadel has yet again done its duty for American democracy.

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