Monday, May 5, 2008

The debate debate

The debate debate in Oregon becomes increasingly absurd. Senator Obama continues to refuse to schedule any more debates with Senator Clinton. Whether you count him the frontrunner or the underdog at this point in the primaries - and I am writing this on the eve of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, it seems odd that Senator Obama will not participate in the great tradition of political debates. I discussed this tradition in a previous post, reprinted below. That post covered the very interesting upshot of the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates, where Stephen Douglass defeated Abraham Lincoln for a Senate seat for Illinois, but Abraham Lincoln received enough recognition to vault him toward the Presidency. So one lesson from those epic debates is that anything can happen as the result of debates. That is part of their value. Lincoln-Douglass style debates give politicians the opportunity to engage one another in discourse, and give others an opportunity to react in a wave of civic discourse. Such civic discourse revitalizes democracy, showing a citizenry themselves debating the future of their republic. By declining to participate in debate, a candidate misses an opportunity to further this foundational aspect of a large modern democracy: that while it may be large and modern, it remains, in principle, a union by the people, of the people, for the people.

To cut to current events: Senator Obama continues to reject calls from all quarters for a debate of some sort in Oregon.

Although partisan, this observation from Oregon Clinton Steering Committe Josh Kardon, underscores the populist and participatory significance of political debates:

The overwhelming majority of Oregonians haven't seen a single presidential debate this year, and we know that hundreds of thousands of Oregon voters would be glued to their sets for the first presidential debate in Oregon history.

Both major Oregon newspapers, the Oregonian and the Register Guard have called for debates. The following sponsors have volunteered to host debates:

  • Willamette University in Salem;
  • KGW-TV (NBC) in Portland;
  • KATU-TV (ABC) in Portland;
  • KOBI-TV (NBC) in Medford;
  • the City Club of Portland;
  • PBS/NOVA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and
  • Association of Oregon Counties and Oregon State University Extension Service.

Senator Clinton is willing to participate in a debate sponsored by either or both of the Oregon newspapers, including one hosted by the Eugene Register Guard, a paper that has endorsed Senator Obama.

To cut back to epic debates in American history, a repost from April 27.

The actual Lincoln-Douglas debates: Why They Matter Just Now

Senator Clinton has challenged Senator Obama to "Lincoln-Douglas "style debates.The framing of the challenge is meant to convey the format of the proposed debates: unmoderated but governed by rules agreed upon beforehand by the two parties.

But the history and context of the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates makes the idea of debates in that style particularly appropriate now, as Democrats today are closely divided in their preference between the two remaining contenders for the Democratic Party nomination.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was running against Stephen Douglas to become one of Illinois' two Senators in Washington. The election occurred at a dramatic moment in U.S. history, just as the national split over states' rights and slavery was coming to a head. You can read the texts of each debate. Some issues will seem alien, part of another era; others will sound strangely modern.

The significance of the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates for today's Democrats lies in the fact that the two candidates for the Senate seat for Illinois agreed to let the people of their entire state hear them interact. Remember: 1858 meant no television or radio. So, Lincoln and Douglas scheduled seven debates, starting in the third week of August and ending in the middle of October, each one held in different part of the state. The candidates had to travel - not by car or plane for sure - to make each date but this was the way all the voters could hear what they had to say.

These original Lincoln-Douglas debates were hard fought, with the candidates engaged in fierce verbal jousting. But the debates were also notable for their civility and the honorable conduct of both Lincoln and Douglas. When it came to policing time, each candidate moderated himself, and at times the audience. The point was for both candidates to be heard, on a fair basis, to allow themselves to be judged by those whose votes were being sought.

Abraham Lincoln did not win this election against Stephen Douglas. But the debates made him famous. He arose to national prominence and was shortly elected to the Presidency of the United States. The rest is history.


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