Geraldine Lawson, the late founder of the community theater in Botetourt County, had a routine whenever she gave the pre-show curtain speech at Attic Productions.
She’d thank the sponsors, she’d appease the fire marshal by pointing out the exits, she’d talk about what shows were coming up and then, more often than not, she’d point out errors in the program – someone left out, someone misidentified, all the usual ways something could get messed up.
Then she’d deadpan: “That’s the first mistake we’ve ever made.”
The audience always guffawed, and everyone moved on. Her good-natured correction came to mind after last week’s faux pas where a bill introduced by Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, that referenced the Lincoln-Douglas debates – between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas – instead cited Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist. The Division of Legislative Services, the agency that writes bills for legislators, took the blame, saying Williams had submitted a “historically accurate” draft. Of course, this also came after Frederick Douglass started trending on Twitter, mostly at Williams’ expense – or sometimes the whole Virginia General Assembly’s. “Hey, Virginia lawmakers, the Lincoln-Douglas debates did not feature Frederick Dougass,” headlined The Washington Post. The You Tube commentator known as “Beau of the Fifth Column” devoted a satirical segment to the subject that so far has generated more than 199,000 views.
This whole episode, though, has done us a great, if inadvertent, service. Williams may want the Lincoln-Douglas debates taught in schools (just not “divisive” concepts such as critical race theory) because of what they can teach us about our history, but those debates also make another point that’s still quite relevant today: Those guys debated a lot.
Between August and October 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated seven times across Illinois as they tried to help their respective parties win control of the state legislature, which then had responsibility for electing U.S. senators. By contrast, no presidential candidates have debated more than four times and that happened just once, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The more typical number has been two (such as we had in 2020) or three (such as we had in 2016). Candidates for Virginia governor often have a lot of “joint appearances” – both giving a speech to the same group on the same day – but formal debates are fewer. Last year, Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe debated just twice.
Now, there are some obvious differences between debates in the stump-speaking era and debates in a broadcast (and social media) era. If Lincoln and Douglas had television back in the day, maybe they wouldn’t have needed seven debates. Maybe they could have just gone into a steam-powered television studio and had it out once or twice and been done with the whole thing.
Still, this gives a good opportunity to talk about how many times candidates should debate and do it in the calmer atmosphere that prevails when there isn’t a campaign going on. Once there are actual candidates, one side almost always wants more debates and the other side almost always wants fewer – and which side that is has nothing to do with party or ideology. Incumbents want fewer debates, because why elevate the opposition? Likewise, with candidates who think they’re ahead. Why risk making a mistake – you know, something like blurting out “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.”
Let’s step back, though, and ask not what’s best for the candidates (or at least one of them), but what’s best for voters. Would voters benefit from having more debates?
That’s, well, debatable.
Generally, but not always, viewership of presidential debates has declined after the first one. These aren’t exactly “Game of Thrones.” Or “Squid Game.” Or even reruns of “Jeopardy!” Debates are supposed to be serious discussions of public policy and – I know this will come as a surprise to our serious-minded readers – not everyone is into that.
I think there’s a line about horses and water and their lack of thirst that applies here.
That said, for those of us who are interested in serious discussions of public policy, modern debates are a poor way to find out much about where the candidates stand. The Lincoln-Douglas debates took place in an era when people had longer attention spans. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other for 90 and finally whoever went first got a 30-minute rejoinder. Lincoln and Douglas alternated spots as they traveled through the state. These probably weren’t true debates, either, more like back-to-back speeches. Nowadays, though, candidates’ responses are measured in seconds, not minutes or even hours. At the first McAuliffe-Youngkin debate last fall, at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, candidates got 60 seconds apiece to answer questions, with 30 seconds allotted for follow-up answers. Those aren’t answers, those are sound bites.
As a journalist, I have come to dislike debates because we all know the answers have been rehearsed. Every candidate has their zingers ready, the lines they want quoted ready to be uttered. Of course, every now and then we get something unexpected – once again, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach” – but usually we don’t. Even then, there’s no real opportunity to probe a candidate’s thinking. What role did McAuliffe feel parents should play in schools? How much control does Youngkin want to give parents in setting curriculum and how should that input be given? Who gets to decide which books in the school library are acceptable and which ones aren’t? What do we do when a majority of parents feel one way but a vocal minority is adamant about another? Modern debates aren’t structured to allow for that kind of deep and persistent questioning.
Of course, candidates don’t like that kind of thing for all the obvious reasons. To get at that level of discussion, you’d need full-fledged, sit-down interviews with candidates, which they are increasingly loath to give – and, increasingly, don’t have to. One irony of the social media era: Candidates are able to speak directly to voters and say even less than they did before.
Some candidates like to say that a campaign is a job interview and they’re not wrong, except that nothing in political campaigns resembles a job interview. At my previous employer, we’d subject job candidates to a full day of interviews and sometimes more. Some of these were excruciating – for candidate and hiring team alike (and yes, we worked through hiring teams and wanted a consensus before we agreed on a candidate). By contrast, candidates for public office get off pretty easy. The two debates last fall went for no more than an hour apiece. Subtract some time for introductions, rules and other formalities, and each candidate had to speak for no more than 30 minutes each time – and in 60-second or even 30-second increments. And since they could guess some of the questions well in advance – abortion, guns and so forth – much of that could get memorized. It was just McAuliffe’s misfortune that he tried to improvise an answer. They also always say a “gaffe” is when a candidate makes the mistake of telling the truth.
In any case, is this really the best way for voters to learn about the finalists for who should get a four-year contract as chief executive officer of an enterprise whose budget runs $79 billion a year (or $158 billion for the biennium, as Virginia prefers)? Yes, I’m intentionally skipping over the fact that politics and business are two different things. Let’s be honest: Each party would take an incompetent candidate from its side over a thoroughly competent one from the other side, and there are lots of examples through history you can cite to support that, no matter which side you’re on. We’ve become tribal like that. So maybe debates don’t matter at all, except for a handful of voters who haven’t made up their minds yet, and in today’s polarized environment those seem regrettably few.
Still, for those few of us who do care about the details, how should a debate be structured to really get at policy answers? Here’s one way: There are typically at least 20 weeks between when Virginia requires parties to nominate candidates (in early to mid-June) and when the election is (in early November). That neatly fits the number of the old parlor game “20 Questions,” which was turned into a popular radio quiz show in the 1940s. In my imaginary world, the candidates would meet once a week for 20 weeks and deal with one topic each week in depth. They’d also be questioned by experts in that field which would make it harder for them to duck and weave.
I don’t know if this would really produce good answers but it would produce rare bipartisan agreement: Both parties would hate this!
If this is too radical, there’s another aspect of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that’s worth emulating. Why were there seven such debates? The answer is that Illinois then had nine congressional districts. The two candidates had already spoken in two of them – speaking in Chicago and Springfield within a day of each other. After that, they decided to join forces – what civility! – and worked out the details for speaking in the state’s remaining seven congressional districts. By that standard, Virginia candidates for statewide office – be it governor or U.S. senator, as Lincoln and Douglas were seeking – should debate 11 times, one in each congressional district.
Another radical idea that will never fly: Virginia could require this as a condition for getting listed on the ballot.
Of course, this raises a different question: Does it really matter where debates are held? When I was with The Roanoke Times, I editorialized in both 2017 and 2021 that there should be a regular gubernatorial debate in Southwest Virginia just as there is in Northern Virginia. My goal has been to make that an expectation. I don’t know if it’s an expectation yet but there was a debate in 2017 at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and one in 2021 at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy. (We may have seen one after-effect of the latter on Saturday when Youngkin asked former Appalachian president and retired Supreme Court justice Elizabeth McClanahan to administer the oath of office.)
Now for my disappointment: Neither of these debates focused very much on Southwest Virginia. Maybe that was an unreasonable expectation. Even during last year’s Democratic primary, which featured five (five!) debates, some of the candidates used the one in Bristol to talk about transportation issues in Northern Virginia instead. They knew where they were standing, but they also knew where most of their potential voters were sitting. I’m glad the candidates had to travel to Southwest Virginia, and maybe it exposed them to things they wouldn’t have otherwise seen. But, realistically, it wasn’t really a Southwest debate in content. It could have just been easily held somewhere else. I still think there ought to be a regular debate in Southwest – and Southside, too – but that the focus should be on the issues there. I’m not sure how to make that happen although having 11 – or even 20 – debates might help.
If Lincoln and Douglas could make it to all nine of Illinois’ congressional districts for debates in 1858, surely our candidates for U.S. Senate in 2024 or our candidates for governor in 2025 can make it to debates in all 11 of Virginia’s congressional districts, right?