Technology with attitude

What’s A Lincoln-Douglas Style Debate?


Hillary Clinton has asked for it, but this style of debate is apparently being characterized incorrectly.

TPM provides some perspective…

This is not in fact the format used by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas — which in turn would be anathema to a modern viewing audience. In those famous debates, one candidate would speak for a solid hour, the opponent would go for an hour and a half, and then the first candidate would make a half-hour rebuttal. In this format, there was simply no active role for a moderator to play.

A better term for Clinton’s proposed format might be “Santos-Vinick,” after the fictional West Wing debate acted out by Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda.

To the best of my knowledge, Newt Gingrich proposed this format back in 2007 when he was flirting with running for President. Here’s his commentary…

We don’t really have presidential debates today; we have a kind of meaningless political performance art: a recitation of talking points choreographed to avoid any risk.

In the 2004 election, the Bush-Kerry debate rules ran a full 32 pages of do’s and don’ts, including one rule that ordered the moderator to stop any candidate who dared to depart from the script to reference someone in the audience.

The candidates also were ordered to turn over for inspection “all such paper and any pens or pencils with which a candidate may wish to take notes during the debate.” Pen and pencils. Talk about the vital stuff of democracy!

In telling contrast, the ground rules for the most famous debates in U.S. history were outlined in a two-sentence letter from Abraham Lincoln to Stephen Douglas, his opponent in the 1858 race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. After a prompt exchange of letters, they settled on the terms for seven debates. Lincoln insisted only that “I wish perfect reciprocity, and no more.” There was no talk of pens and pencils.

In any event, I agree with Alan. Obama should accept the challenge. But it’s interesting that the historical context has been revised via a pop culture reference and a Republican operative.