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For Great Debates, Upgrade the Format

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The three presidential debates that begin September 29th may shape the election’s outcome, but don’t expect deep insight on America’s problems. For the future, the debate commission should upgrade the format, recalling the celebrated oratorical combat that electrified the country during an 1858 Illinois Senate race.

Incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, and the underdog Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln, debated seven times, with no panel of journalists asking “gotcha” questions. Instead, the gladiators went directly at each other and the issues. The first debater spoke for sixty minutes, his opponent responded for ninety minutes, and the first candidate finished with a thirty-minute rebuttal. These exchanges drew cheering crowds of 20,000 people, listening without microphones. Lincoln lost the Senatorial race, but his persuasive arguments, captured in newspaper transcripts, made him president two years later.

It’s hard to imagine Biden and Trump enduring such challenging exchanges but wouldn’t it be wonderful if future candidates could?

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