It's time to ban audiences from political debates

To paraphrase an old line, they held a fight last week and a political debate broke out.

A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much. Last Tuesday’s first mayoral debate was an embarrassment to the political process. The catcalls, the shouts, the hoots and hollering made it difficult for the candidates to utter more than a phrase or two before they were interrupted by someone in the audience. The atmosphere got so overheated at one point that moderator Errol Louis had to eject one person from the hall.

Now, politics ain’t beanbag, as articulated by writer Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley. But still – if candidates are to debate their ideas and parry each other’s attacks, we the voting public should at least be able to hear what they have to say. Moderators always caution debate audiences to be nice and polite, but their calls for decorum are increasingly ignored in our hyperpartisan political environment.

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Part of the trouble is that some candidates themselves view debates more as entertainment than political discourse. Witness Bo Dietl’s rantings that went on for so long that Louis had to cut off his mike. It is a trend that unfortunately has become more prevalent as the line between politics and show business continues to blur (it is perhaps no accident that two of our last six presidents made their names in the entertainment business).

At last year’s presidential debates, Donald Trump tried to psych out Hillary Clinton by inviting Paula Jones and several other women who had accused President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment to the audience. His move was in response to the Clinton campaign’s invitation to billionaire Mark Cuban – a noted Trump critic – to sit in a front row seat of a previous debate.

Certainly, audiences have had an impact on political debates. During the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, audience members regularly hooted and cheered and even shouted out questions to the candidates. But the format of those debates called for 60- and 90-minute speeches by each candidate, not one-minute sound bites, so maybe those audience interruptions helped relieve the tension (or boredom) induced by stem-winding speeches.

More recently, audience reactions helped crystallize turning points in political debates. In his 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan quipped that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience’s roar of approval reinforced Reagan’s line, helped alleviate concerns about his age and proved to be a moment from which Mondale would never recover.

Similarly, four years later, in the vice presidential debate, Dan Quayle was devastated by Lloyd Bentsen’s line that he was “no Jack Kennedy.” The huge audience reaction to Bentsen’s quip helped make that remark the soundbite of the night – replayed on every newscast the following day. Quayle and his running mate, George H.W. Bush, won the election, but Quayle’s career never went any further.

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As entertaining as these moments are (and it should be no surprise that many of these quotable lines are prepared in advance), do they really add to our knowledge about the candidates, their plans, their vision, and their ability to think on their feet? Not really. They just reinforce the circus-like atmosphere that increasingly dominates our political discourse.

There is another way, of course: no audiences. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates – the first televised presidential debates – were all held in television studios. Only the moderator, a panel of reporters, technicians and candidates’ aides were present in the room. In an extraordinarily close election, the candidates concerned themselves to the issues of the day – not generating applause and cheers from their friends in the crowd.

Here’s my solution: Hold political debates in closed television studios and let the candidates invite their supporters to watch the debate in a separate large room with large-screen TVs. There, the audience can cheer, hiss, shout – even throw tomatoes at the screen. Just keep a few security guards on hand to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

After all, if television viewers prefer watching something more entertaining, well, there are hundreds of other channels that provide an alternative.

Philip Lentz is a freelance writer in New York City.