TAUBE: Obama and Romney should debate Lincoln-Douglas-style

Less restricted format would sharpen the contrast

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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. As he said in the third debate at Jonesboro, “The Dred Scott decision covers the whole question, that each state has a right to settle this question of suffrage for itself, and all questions on the relation between the negro and the white man.” Douglas continued, “Why cannot this union exist forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it. It can thus exist if each state will act out the principles upon which our institutions were founded, to wit, the right of each state to do as it pleases, and then let its neighbors alone.”

Lincoln, the Republican, held an opposing view. As he acknowledged in the first debate in Ottawa, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I have no disposition to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.” Yet he strongly denounced slavery in the seventh debate in Alton: “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

In historian Harold Holzer’s view, “To know the real Lincoln-Douglas debates is to know the apotheosis of American political discourse as spectacle — with all weapons loaded, no holds barred, and audiences hanging on every word.” This is exactly what Americans used to expect from political debates: part intellectual discussion and part theater. Alas, there is more emphasis on the latter these days.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have a real opportunity to correct this trend. Yes, the president might be the better orator of the two. Even so, both men would have a chance to shine by discussing important issues like health care and taxes in greater detail. Who knows? It might turn out that Mr. Romney excels in this particular format while Mr. Obama doesn’t. This could have a real effect in November.

Would people tune in to a lengthy Obama-Romney debate? Political junkies would be intrigued, and political cynics would scoff at this notion. The one thing that’s clear, however, is that using the Lincoln-Douglas debate model would be a triumph in the arena of political discourse. This democratic principle alone should make TV executives seriously consider this proposal.

Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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