Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has an interesting piece on the Lincoln-Douglas debates in The Washington Post. He argues that this famous series of confrontations didn’t mark a high point in American political rhetoric.
For months, Newt Gingrich has floated the same challenge to President Obama that underdogs have hurled at their political rivals for more than a century: Let’s debate. And not just once or twice, but many times, with no moderators to intervene or inhibit us. Just two candidates, head to head — Lincoln-Douglas style.
As a Lincoln historian, I’ve studied the famous meetings between challenger Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Stephen A. Douglas that set the prairies on fire during the 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois. Gingrich has even called me to discuss them. As I’ve told Gingrich, the problem is that, as famous as the debates are, their reputation far outweighs their value. And they’re hardly an inspiring model for modern candidates seeking to showcase their oratorical skills.
Newt Gingrich said Thursday night that if President Barack Obama declines his challenge to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, he will follow the president everywhere he goes and rebut Obama’s remarks after he makes them.
His inspiration, Gingrich said, is Abraham Lincoln, who followed Stephen Douglas when he shied away from debating him.
If Obama ducks debating him, Gingrich said, “I will announce that as of this evening, the White House will be my scheduler, and wherever the president goes I will show up four hours later to respond to his speech.”
Lincoln adopted this strategy in his 1858 race against Douglas in order to draw attention to his own arguments against the incumbent’s position on the extension of slavery. As Douglas travelled throughout Illinois and drew crowds of listeners, Lincoln tagged along to deliver his own rebuttals, either in the evening or on the following day.
One state newspaper called the tactic “desperate,” but Lincoln was committed to mounting a vigorous opposition. As the less prominent candidate, Lincoln knew that he stood to gain from engaging Douglas publicly, which is one reason why Douglas was reluctant to agree to Lincoln’s eventual proposal for a series of formal debates.
Although Douglas prevailed in the Senate race, he knew that Lincoln would be a formidable opponent, saying, “I shall have my hands full…if I beat him, my victory will be hardly won.” And it was.
Newt Gingrich thinks modern voters could benefit from an old-fashioned campaign staple:
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Saturday that, if he wins the Republican nomination, he’ll challenge President Barack Obama to seven forums akin to the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Gingrich announced this intention while speaking at a presidential forum in Iowa sponsored by the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The former Georgia congressman described the 2012 election as the nation’s most pivotal since 1860, when Abraham Lincoln – a Republican – defeated three opponents, including Stephen Douglas, to capture the presidency.
Historian H.W. Brands, meanwhile, has written an op-ed piece questioning the value of such debates, arguing that success in these verbal contests doesn’t equal administrative ability. Brands also believes that debates exacerbate political divisions by bringing extremism to the fore.