CINCINNATI - Officials at the final presidential debate, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, repeatedly warned the in-house audience: no cheering, no booing, no catcalls, attaboys, or any other unseemly disturbances of the peace. In the media filing room -- nowhere close to the actual debate hall -- reporters stayed mostly quiet, too, making little noise beyond tapping on their laptops.
But a thousand miles away in the key swing state of Ohio, there was no Silence Rule when about 175 volunteers and supporters of the Hamilton County Republican Party gathered at a Cincinnati restaurant to watch Monday night's face-off. When Mitt Romney said something they liked, the crowd cheered. When Barack Obama said something they didn't like, they booed. They also deployed occasional one-word exclamatory fact-checks that were more effective than anything Candy Crowley attempted in the second debate.
All in all, watching the debate with a lively crowd raised the question of whether all presidential debates must be conducted in deathly silence, or whether a little open partisanship might not be welcome during an event that is, after all, intensely political.
When, early in the debate, Mitt Romney turned to President Obama and said, "Attacking me is not an agenda," the crowd in Cincinnati erupted into cheers. It went nuts when Romney told Obama, "Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators." And when Romney reminded Obama that "you skipped Israel" during what Romney called Obama's "apology tour" of the Middle East, a voice yelled out "BOOM!" to cheers and happy laughter.
On the flip side, the boos were loud when Obama claimed America "is stronger now than when I came to office." There were catcalls all around when the president declared that his budget "is not reducing our military spending, it is maintaining it." "It's not your budget!" yelled someone in the audience. "You haven't had one in three years!" And then, when Obama added that, when considering the nation's defense needs, "We need to be thinking about cyber security, we need to be talking about space," the crowd groaned and someone yelled "SPACE??!! NASA cuts?"
Of course, all the partisanship was on one side at a Republican gathering. But if the Boca debate had such partisans from both sides, what would be wrong with a little noise? In Cincinnati, the GOP crowd was smart and up on the issues and ready to hold Obama to account. Certainly a bunch of outspoken Democrats would do the same for Romney. Would it kill the Commission on Presidential Debates to give people like that a collective voice in a future debate? Wouldn't a session with a live -- and lively -- audience be an improvement over the awkward and stilted town-hall format?
Back during the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich repeatedly vowed to challenge Obama to a series of seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates. Like the originals, they would be long, in-depth, with no moderator and lots of audience rowdiness. After one Florida GOP debate last January, when the moderator, NBC's Brian Williams, repeatedly shushed the crowd, Gingrich reacted angrily. "That's wrong," he said afterward. "The media doesn't control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to."
Gingrich never got to press his point. And even if he had somehow won the Republican nomination, he undoubtedly would have had little luck with the Commission on Presidential Debates. After Gingrich protested the NBC debate, National Review's Katrina Trinko asked the Commission for comment and "they confirmed that audience participation has not been allowed in the past in debates, and will not be allowed this cycle either."
Not everything from a partisan audience would be uplifting and enlightening. Among some Republicans, for example, it's clear that after four years, nearly everything Barack Obama says or does just grates on the ear. When the president, as is his habit, referred to "Poh-kee-stahn" Monday night, someone yelled out an all-American-style "Pakistan!" and everyone laughed. And when moderator Bob Schieffer asked Obama, "What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?" someone else bellowed, "ME!" as the camera focused on the president.
At a wide-open debate, there would undoubtedly be some of that on both sides. But there would also be a certain amount of energy, unpredictability, and vitality that might reveal more of the candidates than the current practice. This year, as in past campaigns, there's more than a little unhappiness with the debates' style, formats, and moderators. Why not try something different?