So far the Republicans have had four nationally televised presidential primary debates, and the Democrats two. Republican debates become competitions to see who can make the wackiest comment of the evening, while Democrats recite a litany of progressive ideas everyone knows they will never really fight for.
Moderators play a prominent role; CNBC’s probing questions at GOP debate #3 prompted the “tough” candidates to act like crybabies and demand “fairer” treatment from less “biased” panelists. As self-serving as the Republican criticism might be, I do wonder if these “debates,” are pointless. Yes we are probably better off with them than without, but the overemphasis on generating “clash,” seems modeled on WWE Smackdown rather than the PBS Newshour.
Imagine Abe Lincoln in these debates. In 1860 there were eight Republicans seeking the party’s nomination: three United States Senators (William Seward, Simon Cameron, Benjamin Wade), one former Senator (William Dayton), one governor (Salmon P. Chase), two former congressmen (Lincoln and Edward Bates), and one Supreme Court Justice (John McLean).
Imagine a televised debate in Chicago, site of that year’s Republican convention. The moderators are three prominent newsmen of the time: Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, Henry Raymond of the New York Times, and James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald.
Greeley: Thanks to all the candidates for being here. If your answers go past 30 seconds, the nonstop sound of a cowbell will drown out your remarks until you cease. Mr. Lincoln we will start with you with a question from Henry Raymond.
Raymond: Mr. Lincoln, your critics point out that in 1840 as an Illinois state legislator you jumped out of the first floor window of the state Capitol to prevent the Democrats from obtaining the quorum necessary to pass a bank bill you didn’t like. Sir, how can the public be certain you won’t flee the White House when Democrats attempt to obstruct your agenda?
Lincoln: Mr. Raymond, I think my actions in the Illinois legislature are not relevant to today. Our Southern states are threatening to secede from the federal union. I suggest that we spend our limited time debating who has the best plan to avert that tragic possibility.
Raymond: Senator Seward, you are the front runner for the Republican nomination going into the Chicago Convention. Do you agree with Mr. Lincoln that his past actions are not relevant?
Seward: Well I’ve never tried to prevent a quorum when I couldn’t win an argument, but let me say to directly to Mr. Lincoln: I don’t give a damn about your jumping ability. (APPLAUSE) You simply have not come out strongly enough against the scourge of slavery.
Lincoln: I am on record as saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half-slave and half-free.
Bennett: Mr. Lincoln, please only speak when you are asked a question. Governor Chase, you have a reputation for working with Democrats, which angers the radical wing of the Republican Party. Why should Republicans support someone perceived as a collaborator?
Chase: In my time in government I have done more to oppose slavery than any man on this stage. I work with Democrats because I see them as mistaken, not evil. Seeing them as evil will land us in a Civil War. If we nominate Lincoln or Seward, we are saying we want Civil War because no Democrats in the border or southern states, and even many in the north, can even stand being in the same room with them.
McLean: May I get in this debate?
Greeley: Do you want to say something Justice McLean?
McLean: Yes. I can work with the other side better than anyone. I’ve worked with Jacksonian Democrats, Whigs, anti-Whigs, Free Soilers, and now Republicans. I’m one of two judges to dissent in the atrocious Dred Scott v. Sanford case, the decision that sparked talk of Civil War more than anything in our history. We need a judicious mind to see us through these quite injudicious times.
Greeley: Mr. Dayton, as a former Senator what critique do you have of the sitting Senators on this stage?
Dayton: Please remember that I was also, just four short years ago, the first Republican Vice-Presidential candidate. The sitting Senators are doing their best under trying circumstances. I do know that any one of them would be better than the Democratic nominee. (APPLAUSE).
Raymond: Senator Cameron, rumors are swirling around Chicago that your campaign is negotiating a deal with the Lincoln forces to make you Secretary of War in return for your endorsement. Would you like to respond to those rumors?
Cameron: You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. (APPLAUSE)
This is not a cage match. Look at the questions : “Abe Lincoln, will you flee the White House?” “William Seward, do you care what Lincoln did twenty years ago?” “William Dayton, would you like to insult the sitting Senators over here? “Simon Cameron, are you corrupt?”
How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?
(At this point Bates and Wade interrupt): Here Here!!! Here Here!!!
The crowd goes wild while Greeley feverishly rings the cowbell.
Tony Palmeri (email@example.com) is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.