Newt Gingrich has promised to challenge President Obama to seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates if he is the Republican nominee. But how likely are such debates to occur?
The Commission on Presidential Debates organizes these events every presidential-election cycle. The tradition is to hold three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, each 90 minutes in length. For security purposes, the commission begins planning about two years in advance. In fact, the commission has already announced the dates and locations of this year’s debates.
While the commission could add more debates, it would be difficult. Debate planners work within a six-week window. They can’t hold the debates until after Republicans nominate their candidate at the end of August. They also are reluctant to hold debates too close to the election itself; they like to allow voters’ impressions of the candidates to simmer. (The last debate is currently scheduled for October 22.)
That said, the commission has changed plans before. In 1992, the three candidates — Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ross Perot — didn’t agree to debate rules until early October. As a result, the commission had to schedule four debates in eight days. It even had to find two new locations for additional debates within about a week’s time. The commission pulled it off, but with post–9/11 security concerns, that might be harder this year.
And the logistical problems shouldn’t be overlooked. The commission starts working so far in advance to prevent the technological catastrophes that bedeviled earlier efforts. For instance, in 1976, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter stood mute onstage for 20 minutes after a power outage stopped the debate cold.
“The primary point is what best serves the public?” a source involved with the commission tells NRO. “That’s what always is going to drive our considerations. You can conquer logistical issues, but the question is how is the public best served? What number of debates, on what schedule, in what format?”
Finally, there’s the question of whether President Obama would even agree to such debates. It seems wholly to his advantage not to.