Monday, October 15, 2012

Presidential Debates and the Lincoln-Douglas Template


Presidential debates are important, but they may not decide elections.

It has been generally conceded that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won his first debate with incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama. The second debate is not a “debate’ in the Lincoln-Douglas sense of the term. It has been billed as a “town hall meeting” that pivots on questions taken from the audience, a format more nearly like a press conference, the audience playing the part of news interrogators.

The first Obama-Romney debate followed a similar format featuring a real reporter who failed to satisfy the modest expectations of the Obama camp: Any interrogation that does not result in a clear victory for Obama is by definition defective. In political contests it is fatal to attribute the loss of a debate to defects in the debator.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates were quite different, chiefly because the debaters, Lincoln more often than Douglas, shaped the format. The media of the day, highly partisan, was content to record the debates, the Republican press burnishing Lincoln’s remarks and the Democratic press touching up Douglas’ remarks to his benefit.

Lincoln and Douglas were not presented with questions formulated by reporters. The matter of the debates was shaped by the contestants themselves and the pressing events of the day – most especially the question whether slavery should be permitted in the territories, nascent states of the future the destiny of which was to be decided by a bitterly divided national legislature.

Lincoln was especially adept at constructing what he supposed was a non-confrontational narrative on the subject of slavery, a via media that at first seemed to bridge differences: Slavery would be permitted in the states where it existed, but not in the territories. In the service of his argument, Lincoln enlisted the Declaration of Independence and what he supposed to be the founder’s understanding of America’s “peculiar institution.” Ultimately, the slavery issue was decided by bayonets and bullets, the final bloody resolution staged on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg.

And so, while the issue of slavery and the preservation of the union was decided at last in Lincoln’s favor, it should be recalled that Douglas won the 1858 senatorial election. According to the modern view, who wins the election – by whatever means, foul or fair – is the winner of the debate. Douglas therefore “won” the debates, even though historic events later vindicated Lincoln’s vision.

There are some enduring lessons to be learned from the Lincoln-Douglas debates that do apply to modern times.

The media of Lincoln’s day achieved a partisan balance because the partisan force exerted by newspapers, little more than party organs, was evenly distributed. Lincoln and Douglas did not shrink from a vigorous discussion of issues certainly more inflammatory than the pressing issues of our day. And neither Lincoln nor Douglas sought to retreat behind a convenient rhetorical shield often utilized in our day by incumbents; namely, that a public discussion of a particular issue may so adversely impact policy that it should not be ventilated in public campaigns. Every incumbent politician seeks to withdraw from public debate issues most harmful to his re-election, and every challenger worth his salt seeks to exploit them.

Finally, it should never be far from our minds that the pull of events, far more than public oratory, determines the destiny of nations. Events on the ground, far more than oratorical contests, will shape the destiny of the United States as it moves into a century of strife and challenge.

The future is never entirely clear. We see it in present events through a glass, darkly. But the red flags of the future are all around us: a weak economy; a resurgent Islam; the marginalization of institutional moral authorities such as the family, the church, the school and voluntary charitable organizations; the near collapse of maintenance government, as opposed to illiberal, authoritarian schemes of government that diminish the force and liberty of men and women of good will.

Transported into the 21st century, Lincoln, the nation’s apostle of liberty, might have added something worthwhile to our enduring national debate concerning liberty.



 
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