If he becomes the nominee, Gingrich asserts, he will challenge the president to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, three hours apiece. He says the president’s ego would compel him to accept, but if he doesn’t, Gingrich promises, “I’m going to say, ‘The White House is now my scheduler,’ and wherever he goes, I will show up within four hours to take apart whatever he said — that’s how Lincoln got Douglas to debate.”
Supporters of the former House speaker love to imagine these debates. After all, the debates among the Republican candidates have helped Gingrich enormously in the GOP contest. In South Carolina, he brought cheering audiences to their feet in back-to-back debates before trouncing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by 12 percentage points in the state’s Jan. 21 primary — and nearly two-thirds of Palmetto State voters said the debates affected their decision. Gingrich’s legions picture their guy landing blow after blow against Obama, leaving the president dazed and hopeless.
It’s easy to dismiss Gingrich’s challenge as a gimmick, just some red meat to excite GOP primary voters, and not a challenge Obama would ever accept. But what if he did? What if the president and the former House speaker dueled in a series of open, nationally televised debates? An honest look at Gingrich’s record suggests that the results could differ markedly from the fantasies of Team Newt. Obama would not collapse in a heap, Gingrich would not emerge triumphant — and the whole thing would go down as the biggest campaign blunder since Richard Nixon figured he could out-debate John F. Kennedy on television.
In most of today’s televised debates, reporters or audience members pose questions to the candidates, who must answer under tight time limits. In the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, there were no reporters or moderators onstage, only a timekeeper. Instead of rapid-fire questions and answers, there were long speeches. One candidate spoke for an hour, the other spoke for an hour and a half, and then the first had a half-hour rejoinder.
It’s easy to see why this format appeals to Gingrich. As he likes to remind everyone, he’s a historian and a former professor, so he has plenty of experience delivering lectures with authority. Though he has never published anything truly scholarly, he reads widely and has countless policy topics — electromagnetic pulse attacks, anyone? — at his fingertips. There is little chance that he would have a Rick Perry “oops” moment.
Gingrich has also had some success with long-form events. At the Oxford Union debating society in 1985, he defended President Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy in response to a speech by the vice president of Nicaragua. Though the audience appeared to disagree with him, Gingrich won a standing ovation for the quality of his argument. In 1994, he organized an Oxford-style health-care debate on the House floor, which helped the GOP when Gingrich and his colleagues proved better prepared than the Democrats.