Obama and Romney Should Debate Lincoln-Douglas-Style; Less Restricted Format Would Sharpen the Contrast

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Obama and Romney Should Debate Lincoln-Douglas-Style; Less Restricted Format Would Sharpen the Contrast


Byline: Michael Taube, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The presidential and vice-presidential debates will be held in October. While political observers and enthusiasts look forward to this, many Americans view the debates as the bane of their existence.

Modern political debates rely heavily on scripted questions and short buzz clips designed to upset an opponent's demeanor. Language and prose are no longer important tools. It's simply a matter of who can generate the most meaningful attack for the evening news. That's why people switch the TV channel so often during presidential debates or don't watch them at all.

However, there's a ray of hope. Last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced a major change to the debate format. According to Washington Times reporter David Hill, three of its four debates this October will include time blocks of as long as 15 minutes during which candidates will debate a single topic. This is an exciting development because the new format hopefully will encourage each presidential candidate to provide well-thought-out answers to difficult questions. For the first time in a long time, intellectual discourse will replace buzz clips at a presidential debate.

That being said, I think President Obama and Mitt Romney should go one step further. My suggestion is to make the fourth presidential debate in the style of the famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. There would be no panelists, media questions, or YouTube video clips. Instead, the two participants would debate, in Douglas' words, for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind.

Here's some background. In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas agreed to have seven debates while competing for an Illinois Senate seat. The first candidate spoke for an hour, the second candidate spoke for 11/2 hours, and the first candidate finished the session with a thirty-minute rebuttal. The two men alternated the task of speaking first, with Douglas, the incumbent, getting the honor in four debates.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates focused primarily on one important historical issue, slavery. Each man's speeches were topical, and often witty and brilliant. But as the historian Allen C. Guelzo correctly pointed out, We have been so content to take the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a purely historical event that we miss how much the great debates really are a defining moment in the development of a liberal democracy.

Douglas, the Democrat, favored the right of states to own slaves. …

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