Newt Gingrich’s fascination with Lincoln-Douglas debates, and why they aren’t happening

at 01:35 PM ET, 12/07/2011

Those looking for a true Lincoln-Douglas style debate in the 2012 presidential race would be better served attending one at your local high school than tuning in to the debate between Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman on Monday.

Details of the Gingrich-Huntsman debate in New Hampshire are beginning to trickle out, and they make clear that the debate will not, in fact, be a formal Lincoln-Douglas-style face-off, or really anything close to it.

For the better part of the last couple months, Gingrich has been touting the idea of Lincoln-Douglas style debates, inviting his GOP opponents to face him and promising to challenge President Obama to seven of them, at three hours each, if he wins the GOP nod.

And just about every time Gingrich mentions such a verbal sparring match, the crowd salivates at the idea of a detailed policy discussion between the wonky former House speaker and Obama, who they see as something of a political lightweight.

But for those anxious for an Obama-Gingrich Lincoln-Douglas debate, don’t hold your breath.

For those who never joined the debate team, a Lincoln-Douglas debate is modeled on contests between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their 1858 Senate campaign. They feature no moderator, a regimented schedule of opening statements, cross-examinations and rebuttals, and detailed discussions based on one central idea.

Instead, the upcoming Gingrich-Huntsman debate will look a whole lot like a more conventional debate, which audiences have seen a lot of this year — albeit one that features just two candidates.

In fact, this “Lincoln-Douglas” debate will be even less of a Lincoln-Douglas debate than the one between Gingrich and Herman Cain in Texas a month ago, when the two candidates debated for 90 minutes and there was no moderator, only broad topics to be discussed half an hour at a time.

So what happened to the three-hour, Lincoln-Douglas style debates Gingrich has been touting?

The fact is that negotiating such things is a gargantuan task, and should Gingrich become the nominee, Obama’s team is unlikely to ever agree to such time-consuming and detailed debates. Gingrich is a skilled debater, and Obama doesn’t need to open himself up to so much direct engagement with the former House speaker, or anybody else for that matter.

There’s a reason there are only three official presidential debates in the general election and dozens in the primaries; that is, presidents don’t submit to lots of debates for a reason.

The fact is that a Lincoln-Douglas style debate between Obama and Gingrich was never going to happen, and especially not with Obama as one half of the debate equation.

At the same time, the fact that the president would be unlikely to accept such a challenge is something Gingrich could use against Obama, suggesting the president doesn’t feel up to the task of answering for his record.

Much like his strategy of going after debate moderators, Gingrich’s un­or­tho­dox campaign methods appear to be, if nothing else, causing a stir. The fact that Cain and Huntsman accepted invites on the so-called Lincoln-Douglas debates shows that people still like some of Gingrich’s outside-the-box ideas.

But in the end, this is a campaign tactic and not something that’s actually, truly going to occur, even if Gingrich does become the Republican standard-bearer.

Gingrich has said he will follow Obama around the country and rebut him in person if Obama turns down his Lincoln-Douglas debate proposals.

Now that is a real possibility, and in all honesty would probably be much more entertaining to watch.

 
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