TAMPA, Fla.—On Tuesday, in his post-debate interview with Fox News, Newt Gingrich wanted to talk about nothing more than the debate itself. The most-recent Florida Q-and-A session was the driest and oddest in months. Why was there a question about Terri Schiavo? Why, Newt wondered, did Brian Williams tell the audience not to applaud?
“The media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media,” said Gingrich. “We will serve notice on future debates—we're just not going to allow that to happen. That's wrong. The media doesn't control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to.”
For Gingrich, this was a dangerous move: Team Romney’s snark and press releases increase in direct proportion to Gingrich’s poll numbers. The Romney camp responded to this debate riff by emailing journalists the infamous 1995 New York Daily News front page—the one with a weeping, diaper-clad cartoon Gingrich tantruming because Bill Clinton gave him a cheap seat on Air Force One. Only Newt Gingrich, the whiner, could want more debates, and only he’d want the audience to yell out.
Sorry, but lots of other people want these things. Okay: I want them. There’s far too much griping about the number of debates, and this hot new gripe—a loud crowd is distracting!—is so, so wrong.
Imagine no debates. The Republican candidates would have had, to date, 36 or so additional hours when they weren’t debating, and some larger amount of time they didn’t need to spend prepping or resting. How would they have used that time? They could, like Rick Santorum, have held smallish meet-ups where a few hundred people could ask them questions, usually easy ones. (I’ve actually heard an earnest voter ask Santorum if he would defend the sanctity of life. Spoiler: He would.) They could, like Ron Paul, hold mega-rallies of supporters and explain the finer points of hard money and Jekyll Island. They could, like Mitt Romney, rent out packaging facilities or hotel ballrooms or fairgrounds and give short speeches accompanied by Kid Rock songs.
Who could possibly want that? The ideal campaign moment comes when a candidate answers questions with cameras pointed at him and no possibility of escape. No control over conditions, or setting, or who does the interview: The candidate is trapped. I’m describing a debate.
This format has victims. After Rick Perry dropped out of the presidential race, his South Carolina sherpa Katon Dawson ranted to me about his candidate’s Death by Podium. “We were a victim of the drive-by shootings of the mainstream and liberal media,” he said, “and we let them dictate our primary, and we did it to our peril.” One Republican consultant who liked Perry but didn’t work for him argued that the candidate had been above average 98 percent of the time and horrible only 2 percent of the time, and that the media focused on the two percent. Both of them said that future Republican campaigns should only accept debate invitations from the groups and people they want.
This isn’t a wholly horrible idea. Maybe the 30- or 60-second answer format of the early debates was limiting. Shake up the formats—sure, why not. This wouldn’t have saved Perry, whose campaign-ending moment (the “oops”) came in response to an easy question. (Everyone forgets this, but the actual question was about Mitt Romney: “Gov. Perry, you play only home games in Texas. Do you give him points for winning on the road?” Perry took that ball and sprinted into the desert.)
But the plenitude of debates shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. Nor should the noise. When she joined the dogpile on Gingrich, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin minimized the howling crowds of previous debates; they were Gingrich’s “cheering section,” she said. “The Presidential Debate Commission rules say no applause or crowd reaction. Newt says he won’t show unless his pom-pom gals and guys can have outbursts.”
They’re not his pom-pom gals. Ron Paul has a crew of traveling pilgrims and shouters—there were around 150 outside Monday’s debate—but Gingrich doesn’t. He’s a Republican who’s popular with Republicans. He’s won over the crowds at nonshushed debates because he’s played to them. This is how every debate works, from high school onward. There’s nothing, theoretically, preventing Mitt Romney from getting the same reaction.
And should the crowd react? It should; after all, it’s tradition. Writing about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the ones Newt Gingrich so badly wants to re-enact with somebody, Harold Holzer pointed out that audiences treated the events like monster truck shows. There were “moments when crowds erupted into such an avalanche of noise,” he wrote, “that stenographers confessed, right in their transcripts, their inability to follow whole sentences at a time.”
Presidential debates have been noisy, too. Not recently, because the Commission on Presidential Debates has decreed that audiences shall not make a racket. But the old League of Women Voters-sponsored debates were loud and proud. The crowd was on for Reagan-Mondale, and it was on when Lloyd Bentsen humiliated Dan Quayle. Those debates reflected what happens, outside of security bubbles, when politicians have to engage with real voters.
But the discussion is almost moot. In Jacksonville on Thursday, Gingrich gets one last chance to throttle the moderator and whoop the audience up. There’s no new debate until the end of February, in Arizona, which will give us a month with no real interaction between the candidates, and with their arguments carried out by surrogates and TV ads. Complain about the debate glut now, but you’re going to miss them when they’re gone.