In the last CNN debate, Newt Gingrich announced that he was interested in debating President Barack Obama in seven, three-hour long debates in the style of the "Lincoln-Douglas debates" of yesteryear. But chances are, that's not going to happen. So Gingrich will do the next best thing -- debate Herman Cain in that manner. And Cain has apparently accepted, in a decision that could end up making that advertisement where his chief of staff smokes on camera look comparatively brilliant.
The venue for the Gingrich-Cain debates will be a forum hosted by the Texas Tea Party Patriots at the Woodlands Resort in Houston. The National Review's Robert Costa has the details:
In background conversations, both campaigns say they look forward to the discussion. A source close to Gingrich tells NRO that the former speaker will speak at length about his policy proposals and will, "in a friendly way," illustrate his differences with Cain.
"This debate is going to be dominated by the candidates going back and forth, in a respectful way," O'Sullivan says. "It will be divided into parts, one for each major entitlement -- Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid -- with each candidate detailing their arguments."
Everyone involved is rightly calling this a "modified" version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, as the originals did not actually feature anything that resembled "back and forth." Rather, the format involved one of the participants holding forth for an hour, the second participant responding with a 90-minute oration, and concluded with the original participants being given a half-hour to respond in kind. There was no moderator.
Gingrich is a dedicated fetishist of American mythology, so it's easy to see why draping himself in the Lincoln-Douglas mantle carries such personal appeal. He also loves to give a lecture. It's hard to say what Cain gets out of it, other than another opportunity to demonstrate that he hasn't thought things through -- Does Cain actually have an hour of material on any of the subjects this debate is set to discuss?
Chances are, this format will give Gingrich a chance to hold forth at length in the patronizing fashion of the last CNN debate, where he said that Cain "deserves a lot of credit" for having the "courage to go out" and have a "specific, very big idea," but that the idea itself doesn't address the "complexities." (For his part, when Cain isn't sticking up for his own plans at the debate, he enjoys telling people how awesome and smart Newt Gingrich is, so it's hard to see this resulting in any kind of dynamic conflict between the two men.)
As for the Lincoln-Douglas debates themselves, people may be remembering them with more fondness than they deserve. As Jim Lehrer -- who's likely forgotten more about the history of presidential debates than most of us will ever know -- details in his terrific new book "Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain," while the Lincoln-Douglas debates are often held out as the "purist model," the fact is that "myths have grown up about those seven encounters" (some of which are more mythy than others):
They were organized by two newspapermen -- Joseph Medill and Charles Ray -- who were open supporters of Lincoln. After each debate, Medill and Ray made sure the press coverage was full and favorable to Lincoln. In other words, it was a 2008-like media-run exercise, complete with post-debate spinning and pre-debate negotiations.
Douglas' allies in the press did much the same for him. So, while the passing of time has allowed us to look back on this part of American history with rose-colored glasses, the fact is that the debates were just a media-constructed spectacle, where everyone remembered it according to their own biases.
Of course, given the fact that both Gingrich and Cain don't seem to be running campaigns that are authentically interested in actually winning the White House, and are more oriented toward personal branding, the model is probably perfect.
At any rate, Costa reports that at the moment, "no broadcast network has agreed to air the exchange," but really, does CNN have anything better to air? Probably not.
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