Sometimes, the legacy of Abraham Lincoln can be a burden.
Mark Kirk is proposing that he and Alexi Giannoulias debate seven times this summer and fall. They would begin, of course, in Ottawa, the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, and end in Alton, where the last confrontation between the Railsplitter and the Little Giant took place.
I can’t tell you how many times Illinois senate candidates have proposed replaying the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in the last 152 years, but I can tell you how many times those debates have actually occured: never.
It’s not going to happen this time, either. Giannoulias’s campaign is already accusing Kirk of using the media to pressure their candidate into a debate schedule.
“We reached out to the Kirk campaign last week and asked to sit down and talk about debates -- instead of working with us they pulled this classless stunt,” the campaign said.
It’s not classless, but it is a stunt. As much as we cherish our heritage as the Land of Lincoln, a seven-debate series just has no place in 2010. And not just because Lincoln and Douglas were two national figures debating the most important issue in the nation’s history -- slavery -- while Kirk and Giannoulias are a pair of local politicians debating whether Giannoulias’s mob ties are worse than Kirk’s fibs.
This was the format of a typical Lincoln-Douglas debate: Douglas would speak for an hour, followed by a 90-minute oration from Lincoln, then a 30-minute rejoinder by Douglas. In Galesburg, nearly 20,000 attended, adding to the sense of moment. The full transcripts were published in newspapers around the country.
I’ll venture to say that a three-hour Kirk-Giannoulias debate will never draw 20,000 people. I doubt it would even draw 20,000 viewers, even if a TV station would set aside the time. In the 1850s, a live debate was a voter’s only chance to hear a candidate’s voice. There was a sense of novelty about seeing a candidate in person that doesn’t exist today, when we can watch campaign ads, TV interviews or web videos. Even a casual news watcher is probably going to spend more than three hours hearing from Kirk or Giannoulias.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates were also motivated by the era’s method of electing senators. They were elected by the legislature, not the voters. Lincoln and Douglas agreed to one appearance in each of the state’s congressional districts, so they could drum up support for legislators in every corner of Illinois. Chicago was not a big city at the time, but as you can see from the schedule below, Kirk is only proposing two Chicago-area debates:
August 21: A foreign policy focused debate in Ottawa, Illinois hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
August 22: A Middle East policy candidate forum in Northbrook, Illinois hosted by To Protect Our Heritage.
August 25: An agriculture and jobs candidate forum in Bloomington, Illinois hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau.
September 2: A wide-ranging debate in Springfield, Illinois (proposed hosts: WICS-TV, the Citizens Club of Springfield and the University of Illinois-Springfield).
October 15: An economic policy focused debate in Alton, Illinois (proposed host: KTVI Fox St. Louis).
October 19: A wide-ranging debate in Chicago, Illinois hosted by the League of Women Voters and ABC 7.
October 21: A wide-ranging debate in Carbondale, Illinois (proposed hosts: Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, WSIU-TV and the Southern Illinoisan).
Lincoln and Douglas needed seven three-hour debates. Kirk and Giannoulias need one or two hour-long debates. For good reason, that’s what most Senate candidates end up doing, and that’s what they’ll probably do this year.