Resolved: that future presidential debates ought to use the Lincoln-Douglas format

Partisan discourse can’t sink much lower. Now is the time to resurrect a format that was made for political debates.

The third and final “debate” between presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is now mercifully in the rearview mirror, but like a direct hit from an aggrieved skunk, it might take weeks for the stink to fully die down. This trifecta of vitriolic spew has held a mirror up before the face of the American system of political discourse, and what we’re seeing is utterly wretched.

And for what? What have we learned? Did the debates make us smarter? Did it leave us more capable of rendering an informed decision? Did it shed light on the election and the best interests of the Republic?

The sad truth is that the truth is pretty sad. These charades, these lowest common denominator spectacles, these premeditated travesties of dishonesty and rhetorical misdirection, we call them debates but they are no such thing. A real debate between candidates would be a wonderful thing, though.

There’s nothing we can do about 2016, but let’s start thinking about 2020 right now.

I used to be a competitive debater. Somewhere there’s a box – maybe in my sister’s basement – full of trophies I won in high school. Nobody would argue, I don’t think, that I was the top individual varsity debater in North Carolina my senior year, although when I moved onto college it became clear quickly that I was just too lazy to be much of a success at that level. Nonetheless, I know a thing or two about policy-focused debate, and there are structures in that world which could be brought to bear on the real world of political campaigning.

In particular, I’d call your attention to the one-on-one format known as, appropriately enough, Lincoln-Douglas Debate. It is modeled on the debates of the 1858 Illinois Senatorial election, which pitted Republican Abraham Lincoln against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas won that election, although you’ll recall Lincoln did better in the big rematch a couple years later. In many respects, Lincoln-Douglas – or “LD” – seems an obvious format for modern debates (it was built for campaign debates, after all) and its structure and rules would go a long way toward maximizing the opportunity for substantive examination of relevant issues and minimizing … well, you’ve been watching, right?

The Rules

If you’d like to dive into the details you can start with the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Wikipedia page, which provides a nice overview and all the links to further reading you’re likely to need. (Warning – there is a lot to know, and not all of it is necessary for the present discussion.)

For our purposes, here’s how it would work.

For each debate, one candidate is the affirmative speaker and the other the negative. This would suggest, in the interest of fairness, that an even number of debates be staged, with candidates alternating sides.

Assume for the moment that there will be four debates. Each will address a specific resolution, to be established by the organizing committee (more on them later). It makes sense that the four topics should address, perhaps, domestic policy, foreign policy, the economy and social issues. (If I were on the committee, I might also agitate for debates on education, the state of media regulation, freedom of speech, the role of religion in government, and any of dozens other topics. But that’s just me.)

A foreign policy topic might be something like this: Resolved: the United States government ought to refrain from military interventions in the Middle East. (Obviously the topic would need to be one on which the candidates have stated disagreements, and in this election neither candidate’s policies would affirm this particular resolution.)

1: The format:

Time (minutes)   Speech   Description
6 Affirmative Constructive (AC) The Affirmative speaker presents a pre-written case.
3 Cross Examination (CX) The Negative speaker asks the Affirmative questions about the Affirmative case. The questioner may ONLY ask questions and the Affirmative must reply directly.
7 Negative Constructive (and first negative Rebuttal) (NC/1NR) The Negative (usually) reads a pre-written case and (usually) moves on to address the Affirmative case.
3 Cross Examination (CX) The Affirmative asks the Negative questions. Again, the questioner may only ask questions and the Negative must reply directly.
4 First Affirmative Rebuttal (1AR) The Affirmative addresses both the negative case and his or her own. This speech is generally regarded as the most difficult.
6 The Negative Rebuttal (2NR) The Negative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.
3 The Second Affirmative Rebuttal (2AR) The Affirmative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.

2: Preparation time: Speakers will be allowed five minutes of prep time to be used at their discretion.

3: Expansion of allotted time: This adds up to roughly 42 minutes bell to bell, and it would reasonable, given the magnitude of the event, to expand the speaking time. I’d recommend leaving the CX at three minutes, because that’s usually plenty of time to extract the information needed (which will be used to set up subsequent arguments), and also because, partisan politics being what they are, this represents the six minutes of the debate when face-to-face contentiousness might break out. If an extra five or six minutes per speaker were distributed among the constructive and rebuttal speeches, the audience would be well served.

4: No interruptions allowed: Debaters may, under no circumstances, speak, interrupt, interject or in any other way impose upon the other speaker’s time. The committee will agree on sanctions for such behavior in advance. It would be entirely appropriate for candidates to be off-stage completely when they are not speaking.

The Committee

In order for the process to be fair and productive, it must be administered by a credible non-partisan body. In this case, it strikes me that there are three possibilities:

  • The League of Women Voters. The LWV’s charter notes that it is “proud to be nonpartisan, neither supporting nor opposing candidates or political parties at any level of government, but always working on vital issues of concern to members and the public.” The organization is uniquely focused on promoting participation in the electoral process, making it ideally suited to the mission of this debate committee.
  • The Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ is “dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior…SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.” It is hard to imagine a mission more in line with the goals of a fair and informative debate process.
  • The National Speech & Debate Association. “The National Speech & Debate Association believes communication skills are essential for empowering youth to become engaged citizens, skilled professionals, and honorable leaders in our global society. We connect, support, and inspire a diverse community of honor society members committed to fostering excellence in young people through competitive speech and debate activities.”

In short, the LWV knows voting and the electoral process. The SPJ knows free speech. And the NSDA knows debate.

I’d propose that a National Presidential Debate Commission (NPDC) be formed by the leadership of these three organizations and that each contribute equally to the membership and governance of the committee.

The Debates

The committee will be responsible for choosing topics (in cooperation with the campaigns, of course), securing venues, selection of moderators and judges, and so on.

As always, news and media outlets will provide coverage and analysis. However, the committee will seat a panel of judges in accordance with the non-partisan charter of the NPDC which, at the conclusion of the event, will render a decision on who won and why. The judges will need to be recognized experts on the subject matter of the debate.

Obviously the decision will hold no official weight (and, in a sideways nod to the way networks operate in the modern world, we can assume that it will actually generate the sort of controversy that drives ratings). News organizations may choose to impanel their own judges who can render decisions as they see fit.

The committee may choose to designate an official media outlet as host for the debates, and in doing so they are advised to consider the impact of doing so on perceptions of fairness and impartiality. A single official network might possibly be a governmental channel like C-SPAN. Alternately the committee may choose to rotate official coverage between networks.

Additionally, the current state of electronic media enables something like instant fact-checking. This information will be made available via the official broadcast at the conclusion of the debate, and judges will have access to the information before making their decisions.

Other Considerations

Those familiar with LD know that it’s primarily designed for discussions of values, as opposed to harder debates on policy (which is the domain of team debates in the academic setting). In our present framework we know that there will be extensive discussion on questions of values, but candidates should also be encouraged (if not outright compelled) to speak to policy specifics.

Advantages of the Lincoln-Douglas Format

1: LD Debate affords each candidate an equal opportunity to speak and be heard. No participant can gain an unfair advantage by interrupting or intimidating the process.

2: Since speakers are face to face with the audience, there is greater freedom to address the public in a tone that breeds thoughtfulness and encourages respect for the issues.

3: The aggressive non-partisanship of the process works to restore faith in the system.

4: The centrality of the topic resolution forces focus on an issue of critical importance to the electorate.

5: Knowing that speeches are being fact-checked in live time should encourage most candidates to be diligent about the accuracy of their claims.

6: Several facets of the process – the topic-driven nature of the discussion, the independent, non-partisan committee, the judging panel and fact-checking function, to name a few – are designed to compel candidates to stay on point and to discourage irrelevant tangents.


We have reached a point in our history where there are no magic wands to insure trust on all sides. We’re a bitterly divided and dangerously uninformed society, qualities that make us easy to deceive and manipulate.

But as the old saying goes, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. The fact that no debate process we can imagine will heal our wounds overnight doesn’t mean we shouldn’t immediately begin taking steps to stop the bleeding. If you’ve been paying attention, you have to realize that there are few things in the US today that are more damaging than the electoral process and there are even fewer things that more grotesquely typify what we have become than the reprehensible ritual of our presidential debates. If you can watch one without feeling diminished, then it’s likely you’re part of the problem.

This proposal therefore makes no guarantees, save one: it is a far, far better means for comparing what our candidates have to say than the appalling exhibition we saw last night.

Both parties should embrace it, too. The Democrats profess a love of free speech and fair deliberation, so they can’t possibly veto the proposal. And if the GOP can’t get on board with Lincoln-Douglas Debates, they never get to use the phrase “party of Lincoln” again. Ever.


  • I would watch this debate.

  • Frank Venturo

    Great proposal! But, I am a total cynic about our public political discourse. You are approaching this as if it were a rational process. The MSM stopped treating it that way a long time back (or maybe they never did). The League of Women Voters sponsored the debates in1976, 1980, and 1984. They gave up and issued this: “The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates…because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

    • I said it would be a good idea. I didn’t say it had a prayer in hell. I applaud the LWV for recognizing the truth and acting with integrity. If only they were the rule instead of the exception…

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