In the first umpteen Republican debates of this primary season, the crowds watching had as much of an active role as the participants, driving the energy of the debates and sometimes the day-after discussion. Whether it was booing a gay soldier or cheering the death penalty or going hog-wild over Newt Gingrich’s lambasting of CNN’s John King, the crowd functioned like the live studio audience in an old-fashioned sitcom, not just cuing the home audience with their reactions but providing the candidates with a real-time applause-o-meter and a sense of how their arguments were playing. (One of the most stunning moments in the last debate was Mitt Romney fine-tuning his position on releasing his tax returns in mid-answer, after his first, glib response got booed.)
Last night at NBC’s debate in Tampa, Brian Williams cautioned the crowd that there would be no outbursts in his debate—hooting or booing or standing ovations. I can understand why: that’s not the way we conduct debates on respectable broadcast TV. Leave the theatrics to cable! It was a statement in favor of gravitas, seriousness and respectful discussion.
And boy, was it a mistake. However well-intentioned, the commandment of silence sucked the energy out of the room, leaving the candidates—especially Gingrich and Romney at center stage—like sitcom actors missing their laugh track. There was no crowd noise for Gingrich to feed off, building to one of his usual crescendoes, nor any applause (or boos) to give a sense of how Romney’s attacks against the apparent new Florida frontrunner were playing.
What’s more, the injunction against crowd noise fought against the course of debate questions that Williams chose to ask. If he wanted to conduct a serious, high-minded discussion of policy, fine—then he could have kicked off the debate asking the candidates what they would do as President. Instead, the full first half-hour of the debate consisted of questions about the campaign itself: the attacks, the repsonses to the attacks, Romney’s tax returns, Gingrich’s lobbying (or “consulting”). Williams was staging a chess match but he was prompting a boxing match, and the result was both uninformative and uninteresting.
This year, of course, if you don’t like a debate, you can wait three days for the next one, and I’m guessing the crowd at CNN’s, Thursday, will not be so sedate. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for.