We Need Lincoln-Douglas Style Debates Now

And moderators need to stick to the rules.  That means no interrupting, talking over each other, or blowing past the time limits. 

Bill Grueskin
July 01, 2019

Something remarkable happened at the second Democratic presidential debate on June 27. For a few moments, the moderators stopped talking, and the candidates started engaging–in particular, Sen. Kamala Harris took on former Vice President Joe Biden over his stance on busing in the 1970s.

It was an electric moment, and as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan noted, it was probably the most riveting of the four hours of debates last week. But it wouldn’t have happened if MSNBC moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd had interjected or stuck closely to the rules. Maddow and Todd might not have realized it, but they were following the wisdom of Pulitzer-winning author Robert Caro, who puts the letters “SU” in his notebooks so he’ll remember to “shut up” during interviews.

The problem, of course, is that by allowing their own rules to be abrogated (in this case, the candidates were supposed to stick to 30-second responses), the moderators have incentivized candidates in future debates to interrupt each other, talk over each other, and blow past the time limits. With 10 garrulous, self-aggrandizing politicians on the stage, we see how this can easily descend into a cacophonous melee.

So it’s time for a different format, something Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas perfected in their 1858 Senate contest. Pair off those 20 Democratic candidates into 10 debates, limit each to 30 or 45 minutes, and assign moderators a modest role in providing questions or topics. Then, let those two candidates debate each other, while journalists assume their appropriate SU role.

Bill Grueskin, Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Journalism School, is a veteran reporter and editor. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of The Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.