Obama, Gingrich and No Moderator? Don’t Count on It

Dec 12, 2011 4:53pm

Could Newt Gingrich and President Obama actually debate each other for three hours with no moderator — seven times?

That’s what Gingrich apparently wants. The media-bashing candidate has pledged repeatedly to challenge Obama to a series of  “Lincoln-Douglas”-style debates if he’s the Republican nominee for president.

The chance of such debates happening is low. The Obama campaign didn’t respond when asked if it would consider Gingrich’s proposal, and historians and presidential observers note that the challenge, not an unusual one, is more of a coy suggestion designed to bolster a nonincumbent.

What distinguishes a “Lincoln-Douglas” debate?

On Monday, Gingrich and Jon Huntsman had a debate fashioned after the Lincoln-Douglas forum, in New Hampshire. A time-keeper – not a moderator — sat next to the two and spoke only after a candidate had finished talking, and just to introduce the other. Gingrich said at the beginning that the debate would lend itself to unpredictability because “you don’t have talking points, your consultants didn’t figure it out, you didn’t do focus groups, you’re just talking from your own experience about the nature of the world.”

The time-keeper said at one point that he wouldn’t be using buzzers, horns or bells to cut off the candidates. “And we’re grateful,” Gingrich replied.

If anything, by extending the offer to Obama, Gingrich is not only showing his own self-confidence that he can debate Obama comfortably, but he separates himself even further from the pack of GOP contenders whom he’s already debated a dozen times.

“Tactically, it’s a smart move,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on campaigns who has observed the history of presidential debates. “Effectively, it takes some of the other candidates out of question.”

The exact logistics of Gingrich’s desired Lincoln-Douglas format have not been specified, and the show itself might not be that entertaining to some of the viewing public. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas discussed issues – mainly slavery – seven times during their 1858 Senate race, but the audience didn’t witness heated exchanges so much as lengthy speeches. One candidate would speak for an hour; the next would respond in 90 minutes; and the first would return with a half-hour rebuttal.

In today’s media environment, voters might tune in for the first in the series of unmoderated policy speeches in a general election, but for seven?

“There’s a danger that it would fail to hold interest,” said David Greenberg, a presidential historian who has cautioned against romanticizing debates modeled after the Lincoln-Douglas style.What kind of ratings does C-Span get?”

At least some voters would be excited. When Gingrich has announced his challenge at debates, Republican audiences have responded with enthusiastic applause. Even Jamieson and Greenberg conceded that a less theatrical forum could let voters actually learn things about the candidates and issues outside of sound bites for which the current debates are designed.

For conservatives, the idea of watching an articulate candidate like Gingrich debate Obama without the mainstream media interfering is almost a gold standard.

“No offense to you, but there’s no denying that the conservative movement thinks the media is the mouthpiece – part of the mouthpiece for the administration,” said Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of the Tea Party Express. “People would like to see Obama come to the table, and, you know, let’s talk about all these things.”

Even if Obama declined the invitation, experts said, Gingrich would still benefit at least a little by being seen as the challenger chasing the president around trying to persuade him to debate , as Lincoln did to Douglas (although Abe lost that Illinois Senate race).

Still, the comparison isn’t exactly perfect, Jamieson said.

“I wouldn’t suggest that we have either Lincoln or Douglas present, an audience willing to listen at that length or a medium that is willing to carry that kind of content unmoderated,” she said. “Eyes would glaze over, and the audience will switch to audit, and then immediately drop to a withdrawal from the course that Professor Gingrich would be teaching.”

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