Mitt Romney has declined an invitation to engage Newt Gingrich in a Lincoln–Douglas-style debate. The former speaker is used to rejection: He’s been proposing the idea for decades.
His model is the series of debates between Democratic senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and his challenger, Republican Abraham Lincoln, in 1858. Although the state legislature picked the victor, Lincoln and Douglas held the debates in public to influence state elections. The topic, in each debate, was slavery. And each contest lasted three hours: The first candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the second gave a 90-minute rebuttal, and the first closed with a 30-minute reply.
In 1992, Gingrich challenged Democrat Ray Flynn, mayor of Boston, to a series of Lincoln–Douglas-style debates on urban issues. Flynn supports the idea for the Republican candidates. “The Lincoln–Douglas debate is something that could make or break a politician,” he says. “The true character of the politician and their ability and vision would come out.”
Gingrich found the idea so appealing that he proposed it again in 1996. Speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Gingrich suggested that Pres. Bill Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole (R., Kan.) follow the extended format. He also imagined how Lincoln would have reacted to the sound-bite media culture. “You know these new things that they dial where you . . . find out whether they liked the word you used in paragraph three?” he asked. “Lincoln would have said, ‘That’s stupid; I want them to actually listen to the whole paragraph and then think about what I said, and tell me, in two days, did you like my two-hour speech at Freeport?”
Yet Gingrich recognized the danger of 90-minute replies: “Your problem in reaching an increasingly fragmented audience in an increasingly short time span in terms of attention is a very big problem,” he conceded.
But he couldn’t resist. In May 1999, he wrote a letter to Republican officials in which he suggested that they ask each of their presidential candidates to give a 15-minute speech followed by a five-minute question-and-answer session. “Obviously the modern age would not afford that kind of opportunity to nine or 10 different candidates,” Gingrich wrote. “On the other hand, there is nothing which requires us to reduce the presidency to an average soundbite of nine seconds.”
One of the contenders, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), quickly endorsed the idea, but it failed to gain traction.
In 2005, Gingrich returned to the campaign — for Lincoln–Douglas debates, that is. Discussing the presidential-nomination system’s ills with the Des Moines Register, Gingrich vowed that, if he ran, he wouldn’t be just another also-ran. “I’d refuse to do any cattle shows,” he said. “Any random person who thinks they can run can show up. A lot of it trivializes the whole process of picking the leader of the most complicated society in the world.”
“You’d hear him say that fairly frequently,” remembers David Yepsen, former chief political reporter for the Register. “I remember him urging reporters to foster [Lincoln--Douglas-style debates].”
In February 2006, Gingrich outlined his preferred debate format in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He suggested three changes. First, scrap all previous rules for presidential debates. Second, remove the moderators. Third, mix Democratic and Republican candidates in the debates. “Tossing insults would be much tougher — and much less effective — if those candidates aspiring to lead America had to make their case in front of the other party’s candidates and their supporters,” he argued.