Brent Batten: Gingrich offers debatable proposition

BRENT BATTEN

Both a student and teacher of history, Newt Gingrich calls the election of 2012 the most important in the nation since the '60s.

If he is the Republican nominee, he will borrow from the '50s for ways to win it.

Not the 1960s or the 1950s. The 1860s and the 1850s.

"If I am your candidate, I will challenge (President Barack Obama) to seven Lincoln-Douglas style debates. A time keeper but no moderator," Gingrich told the packed hall at the Naples Hilton last week.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were a watershed moment in American politics. They would be virtually unrecognizable to a modern audience accustomed to what passes for debate today.

In a race for U.S. Senate, former U.S. Rep. Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Sen. Stephen A. Douglas traveled the state of Illinois, staging events in seven of its nine Congressional districts over a two-month period. One man would speak for an hour. The other would have 90 minutes to respond. Then the first would get 30 minutes to rebut. Crowds of 10,000 people or more attended, braving weather that in some cases was wet and raw. Newspapers from all over the country covered the debates.

They had stenographers transcribe them word for word for print. Media bias existed even then, as Republican-leaning papers would clean up Lincoln's occasional stumbles and gaffes while leaving Douglas' intact and Democratic papers would favor Douglas in the same way.

The issue of slavery dominated each debate. Because U.S. senators were elected by state Legislatures in those days, the men were really campaigning to have their parties win majorities in the Illinois House and Senate. Douglas ultimately prevailed and was re-elected but the national stature Lincoln achieved propelled him to the presidency in 1860.

Gingrich says it's time to get away from debates where the candidate most capable of producing a 30-second sound bite is deemed the winner and where moderators direct the discussion through their questions.

"We ought to have enough time for the two people who want to be our leader to talk in depth," Gingrich said before slipping in a jab at Obama. "If he wants to use a teleprompter, that would be fine with me."

If Gingrich is the nominee, he is confident Obama would accept his challenge, just as Douglas ultimately agreed to debate Lincoln.

The ego of the president, a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School as well as editor of the Harvard Law Review, would not allow him to shy away from debating, Gingrich said.

"How's he going to say he's afraid to be on the stage with a West Georgia College teacher?" Gingrich asked.

Further, Gingrich plans to take a page from Lincoln's manual. Lincoln was following Douglas around the state, making a speech in a city the day after Douglas' appearance. He was effectively countering the senator's message and stealing his press coverage. After doing so in Chicago and Springfield, representing two of the state's nine U.S. House districts, Lincoln got Douglas to agree to mutual appearances in the remaining districts, establishing the number of debates at seven.

With the president's schedule widely known and transportation being what it is today, Gingrich says he'll appear wherever Obama campaigns just hours after him.

"The White House will be my scheduler. Wherever he goes, I will show up four hours after his speech," he said.

"I study history," Gingrich said. "Unlike the president, I study American history. I know how Lincoln got Douglas to debate."

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