Just what is a “Lincoln-Douglas” debate?

December 6, 2011

Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich and long-shot Jon Huntsman say they’ll hold a “Lincoln-Douglas” debate in New Hampshire on Monday. So how will it be different from the usual debates?

During the 1858 race for U.S. Senate in Illinois, incumbent Democrat Stephen Douglas and upstart Republican lawyer Abraham Lincoln held a series of seven three-hour debates in towns throughout the state on the day’s hottest topic: slavery.

The debates had no moderator, and the candidates spoke in paragraphs rather than today’s rehearsed 45-second sound bites. In each of the debates, the first candidate was given 60 minutes to make opening remarks. His opponent was given 90 minutes to respond, and the first candidate was allowed a final 30-minute rebuttal.

Today’s Republican voters will be spared a bladder-busting three-hour talkfest. Tim Miller, a spokesman for the Huntsman campaign, says Monday’s debate is likely to last just an hour and will focus on national security and foreign policy. The question of whether to have a moderator, and whom it might be, has yet to be decided, he said.

Both candidates have expressed annoyance with how the Republican debates have been moderated thus far. Until recently Gingrich’s debate performances had been most noteworthy for his attacks on the media. In a September debate in California, for instance, he told moderator John Harris of Politico: “I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.”

Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore who has the most foreign policy experience of any Republican candidate, had to wait 40 minutes to get asked his second question during the foreign policy debate last month and spoke for just over 6 minutes in the entire 90 minute debate, according to Politico.

In fairness to the moderators, debates exist to highlight policy differences between the candidates, and it could be argued that Huntsman, who has hardly registered in some national polls, has been given more media attention than his position in the race merits.

Terming the debates “Lincoln-Douglas” suggests a certain high-mindedness of purpose. But as James Oakes, a civil war historian at the City University of New York, points out, the early Lincoln-Douglas debates weren’t so different from today’s partisan punchfests. “In the first debates they launch various attacks on each other, and make distracting accusations about political shenanigans,” Oakes says.

In the first debate, before more than 10,000 people in Ottawa, Illinois, Douglas accused Lincoln of conspiring to “abolitionize” the old Whig party “under the name and disguise of a Republican party.” In his response, Lincoln took issue with Douglas calling him a “grocery-keeper” and accused his opponent of “eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people.”

Later debates focused more sharply on the question of slavery in the Western territories – and Lincoln was able to successfully portray Douglas’ neutrality on the issue as immoral. Though widely seen as losing the debates, Douglas retained his seat in the Senate because the Illinois legislature, which then selected U.S. Senators, had a Democratic majority. Still, the wide publicity given to the debates made Lincoln a national figure and vaulted him to the presidency three years later.

That history may provide some comfort for Huntsman—given that a new Gallup poll today finds just 1 percent of Republicans backing him, 36 points behind Gingrich.

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