Matt Lewis

Why Gingrich’s idea for Lincoln-Douglas debates probably wouldn’t happen

In Iowa on Saturday, former Speaker Newt Gingrich reiterated his pledge that — should he win the GOP nomination — he will challenge President Obama to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates.

While some Republicans might be champing at the bit for the chance to see Gingrich debate Obama, the odds of Obama accepting his terms for seven debates — in Gingrich’s suggested format — are not good.

We’ve been down this road before, of course. While Gingrich’s challenge might seem innovative, it’s not that different from a gambit employed by Sen. John McCain four short years ago.

Citing an agreement between President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Barry Goldwater to hold similar debates in 1964, in June of 2008, Sen. McCain invited then-Sen. Obama to a series of debates held in a townhall format.

The idea was popular; The Daily Iowan even editorialized that “Obama should accept McCain’s challenge,” adding,

… McCain’s additional suggestion that the two candidates travel together while employing the town-hall style will draw even more public interest to this already uniquely compelling presidential race, but it will also help lend transparency to the candidates’ platforms.

McCain proposed this format for a number of different reasons. In recent years, the three traditional televised debates have become circus-like productions marked by bland process questions from reporters and bickering spin rooms that control the message of the candidates more than the debates themselves. McCain seems eager to deviate from this path. He believes that Americans are tired of the spectacle that dominates current campaigns, a debacle that he believes is made up of “gimmicks, phony sound bites, and photo ops.” For McCain, a town-hall meeting reflects a more revealing image of the candidates. By allowing audience members to ask their own questions, without the input of either candidate, the dialogue of a town-hall format could provide a more substantive level of discourse. A heavily orchestrated and highly fabricated mess could instead be a rewarding, concrete interaction with the audience. The candidates would be able to respond directly to the concerns of the American people.

This, of course, did not happen. And should Gingrich win the GOP nomination, one would assume President Obama would have even less incentive to engage in such a pursuit with Gingrich — a very good debater.

Gingrich’s idea is a good one — and maybe it scores him some political points. But voters shouldn’t hold their breath. The odds are we will see a handful of presidential debates that look very similar to what we saw in 2004 and 2008.