March 18, 2016
One of the great (and rare) pleasures of watching candidate debates is seeing the springing of a trap.
In some cases the candidate is baited into the trap, as when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen challenged Sen. Dan Quayle for his lack of experience to serve as Vice President in their 1988 debate. Quayle responded that his experience was comparable to that of John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was elected President.
Bentsen’s memorable reply – obviously prepared in advance – was, “I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Then there was Mitt Romney in his third 2012 debate with Pres. Obama.
Romney: ” … our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.”
Obama: “… But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.
“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
Patronizing, yes. Effective? Absolutely.
But for the all-time killer trap we have to go back over a century and a half, to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
Stephen A. Douglas had been a U.S. Senator for twelve years. He was seeking re-election in 1858 and was widely expected to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1860.
Abraham Lincoln was the leading member of the new Republican Party of Illinois. The party had run its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, only two years before, and he had lost to the Democrat James Buchanan.
Both the context and structuring of the Lincoln-Douglas debates were much different than that of candidate debates today.
The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.” The candidates alternated speaking first.
Though not part of the formal rules, it was customary for each candidate to formulate “interrogatories”; carefully phrased questions which the opponent would have to answer.
And this was in the era before electric amplification. To be heard – for several hours – by these huge crowds required a vocal strength and stamina seldom heard today.
The public’s interest was intense despite the fact that they could not directly vote for either man for the office of U.S. Senator. The most that the debates could accomplish in the 1858 election would be to be weighed as one factor among many in the individual voter’s decision on whom to vote for as the local member of the Illinois Legislature, for it was that body that elected the state’s U.S. Senator.
As many as 10,000 people gathered at Ottawa to hear the first debate, many having travelled long distances by horse-drawn wagon. They all had to stand; there were no seats.
Secondly, these debates were really, really focused on national policy. Each man was among the most experienced representatives of his party. Both knew that the debates would be widely reported in major newspapers across the country, and each worked to convince his fellow citizens that his party’s proposals were best for the nation.
As Americans moved westward in the nineteenth century, they organized themselves into territories, legal entities recognized by Congress as preliminary to statehood. After a territory had reached a specified population, it could apply to the Congress to become a state.
In 1854, Douglas had promulgated his solution to the question of slavery in the new territories: “popular sovereignty” would let the people of each territory decide the issue of slavery for themselves by popular vote, and Congress would accept that decision in granting statehood. This doctrine pacified the South, for the time being, without stirring too much opposition in the North.
But in 1857, the US Supreme Court announced the Dred Scott decision, ruling that the US Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in a territory. To do so, wrote the court’s majority, would be to deprive slave owners of their property without due process of law, in violation of the Constitution.
It appeared that Dred Scott had rendered popular sovereignty irrelevant. If prohibiting slavery amounted to a taking of property without due process, what difference did it make whether it was done by congressional action or direct popular vote?
But Stephen Douglas would not publicly admit that his doctrine was dead. He continued to advocate it, avoiding comment on the effects of Dred Scott.
Lincoln intended to force Douglas to answer a very specific question, which he felt that Douglas hitherto had successfully dodged. Indeed, this was among Lincoln’s main goals in entering the debates in the first place. Of course, Lincoln hoped to win election to the U.S. Senate, but it was no less important to wound Douglas by forcing him to alienate either the North or the South.
Nationwide, Democrats far outnumbered Republicans. For the Democratic candidate to win the upcoming 1860 presidential election all that was necessary was to keep the party united. Stephen Douglas was the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination. He was a national spokesman for his party.
Lincoln had thought long and deeply as he always did about political issues. He had concluded, finally, that Douglas was dancing and dissembling at every press interview and speech, to avoid ever admitting a deadly flaw in his position on slavery. Douglas was having it both ways in the North and in the South, and nobody had forced him to choose.
By getting Douglas to join him on the same stage, Lincoln believed he could cross-examine the Little Giant with interrogatories, split the Democratic Party into two contending regional factions, and elect a Republican as president in 1860.
The second debate was held at Freeport, in northwestern Illinois – anti-slavery territory. Lincoln spoke first. During his hour he answered several “interrogatories” that Douglas had posed in their first debate. Then, toward the end of his hour, Lincoln posed his own interrogatories to Douglas. The second interrogatory was:
“Can the people of a United States territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?”
Douglas must have known, since accepting the invitation to debate, that something like this question was coming. He would have given it much thought before formulating his answer. Here was his answer:
“It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature, and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave territory or a free territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill. I hope Mr. Lincoln deems my answer satisfactory on that point.”
If Douglas had answered to the contrary, that the people of a territory could not keep slavery out, he would have lost all support in the North. But in giving the answer that he gave, Douglas went against the political substance of the Dred Scott decision, and thus lost the support of the South.
By forcing Douglas to answer his interrogatory, Lincoln had split the the Democratic Party into sectional factions, which practically guaranteed the election of a Republican President in 1860. That President, of course, turned out to be Abraham Lincoln himself.
is the author of Wounded Warrior, a recently published biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard.