The Washington Post

In CNN Republican debate tonight, the moderators should tell the audience to shut up

When CNN convenes its GOP debate tonight, the moderators should tell the audience to shut up.

Newt Gingrich said Tuesday that he wouldn’t “allow” moderators to ask live audiences to remain silent during debates. He won the South Carolina primary on his appeal to two insufferably partisan debate audiences last week, but he stumbled this week in a debate before a silent crowd. So Gingrich has apparently concluded that the unaided force of his own ideas and rhetoric aren’t enough. He needs the hooting, the hollering, the booing — a hysterical mob to bully moderators or other candidates as they try to respond to his finely-tuned cynicism about “media elites” rigging coverage against him or how he, the former House speaker, is the Washington outsider in the race.

Self-respecting debate organizers, starting with CNN, should take Gingrich’s statement as evidence that they should do the opposite of what the former speaker wants.

Since Gingrich’s comment, other observers have pointed out that, should he win the nomination, he would have to debate President Obama without the aid of a loud, partisan crowd. But the most important point is that asking for respect from the audience is not some arbitrary request. There’s no good reason that moderators should expect a lower standard of civility in presidential debates than fourth grade teachers do during student body elections, in which the fair exchange of views is less crucial to the future of the country.

That Gingrich went out of his way to disagree makes me wonder how commentators and politicians keep claiming Gingrich is some kind of “intellectual.” He denigrated the notion that debates should be serious contests in which ideas can stand — or fall — on their own. Which is about as anti-intellectual as you can get.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.


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