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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gingrich and Debates

With the departure of his top campaign staff, Newt Gingrich seems to have little chance of surviving as a presidential candidate. He may be hoping that a stellar performance in debates will revive him, but the format does not play to his strengths. With seven candidates on stage, and questions from reporters taking up even more airtime, he cannot do what he does best: lecture at length. Instead, like all the others, he will have to give very short soundbites -- and in the past, his soundbites have backfired on him.

He has long admired the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 2007, he wrote in The Los Angeles Times:

We don't really have presidential debates today; we have a kind of meaningless political performance art: a recitation of talking points choreographed to avoid any risk.

In the 2004 election, the Bush-Kerry debate rules ran a full 32 pages of do's and don'ts, including one rule that ordered the moderator to stop any candidate who dared to depart from the script to reference someone in the audience.

The candidates also were ordered to turn over for inspection "all such paper and any pens or pencils with which a candidate may wish to take notes during the debate." Pen and pencils. Talk about the vital stuff of democracy!

In telling contrast, the ground rules for the most famous debates in U.S. history were outlined in a two-sentence letter from Abraham Lincoln to Stephen Douglas, his opponent in the 1858 race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. After a prompt exchange of letters, they settled on the terms for seven debates. Lincoln insisted only that "I wish perfect reciprocity, and no more." There was no talk of pens and pencils.

In the Lincolon-Douglas debates, one candidate would speak for 60 minutes, the second would reply for 90 minutes, and the first would have a 30-minute rejoinder. Unfortunately, such a format would not work with a seven-candidate field.