What good is a live audience at a debate?

On Oct. 5, 1988, Lloyd Bentsen, then a senator from Texas, launched a zinger at Dan Quayle, a senator from Indiana, during a televised debate between candidates for vice president.

Quayle, a Republican, had just made the point that he had as much congressional experience as former President John F. Kennedy had before moving to the White House. Bentsen responded: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Many in the audience at the Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Nebraska, broke into prolonged and enthusiastic applause.

But imagine Bentsen’s famous line without any crowd present. No applause; no energy from supporters. Just an irrelevant rejoinder (Quayle was comparing length of service, after all, not accomplishments) tossed into an empty hall.

Would we remember it?

Was it really that important for informing voters’ decisions about the most important political office in the nation?

How do we rebound from that mess of a presidential debate?

Utahns are understandably disappointed that the Commission on Presidential Debates’ scheduled event for the University of Utah on Oct. 9 is most likely not going to happen. Presidential debates may have been altered forever when the two main candidates came up with their own schedule, and likely not in a good way.

With one exception, that is. It appears both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have agreed to debate with no audience present.

Here’s an even better idea: Turn the candidates’ microphones off when it is not their turn to speak. (This is actually being discussed.)

And here’s an even better one than that: Place the candidates in separate studios.

There is precedent for that last one. The third debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, on Oct. 9, 1960, was conducted with Nixon in Los Angeles and Kennedy in New York.

But then, the debates in 1960 were conducted with a sense of decorum, seriousness and overall adult behavior one rarely sees in America today. Neither candidate dared interrupt the other. Children were watching, after all.

Within my lifetime, we have gone from that to Biden’s “Will you shut up, man?” in 2020.

Moderators routinely warn audiences at presidential debates to remain silent. For the most part, they comply. But as Chris Cillizza wrote for CNN in 2020, if people have to remain silent, why are they there?

“It’s like going to a sporting event and being told you can’t cheer or talk to anyone,” he wrote. “What’s the point?”

And so, I’m wholeheartedly in favor of letting them stay home with the rest of us.

But a mostly quiet audience isn’t the biggest problem. It’s all those rude interruptions.

Biden’s camp is calling for microphones that shut off. As someone who has moderated several debates, I have at times wished for such a thing. However, I doubt both sides would agree to it.

More importantly, however, as we enter this new political debating realm, Americans should mourn the apparent demise of the Debate Commission. Voters suffer when parties and candidates collude to decide on moderators and participants and when no neutral third party is setting rules and enforcing them.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may be a polarizing figure, but a Fox News poll has him at 11%, and The New York Times said he is polling better than any third-party candidate in decades, getting about 10% in important swing states.

Why should a candidate who might be a big spoiler be excluded from an event that would allow voters to examine him, his beliefs and his answers under pressure? And why, on the other hand, would any candidate who might be hurt by such a candidate agree to let him come? Clearly, someone other than the candidates should set the rules.

In the end, Americans deserve an election process that matches the dignity and seriousness of the office. We have, without question, lost this.

Four years ago, a writer for The Guardian in England said of one of that year’s presidential debates, “The coarseness, dishonesty, and grandstanding on display was a mockery of the dignity of the electoral process and a slap in the face to the Americans whose lives will be shaped by the actions of the next president.”

That’s hardly the image of government we should be presenting to the American public, let alone to the world.

The aim should be to return presidential debates to discussions of substance. Despite a few good steps, there is little reason to believe we’re getting much closer.