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Why We'll Never See a Lincoln-Douglas Debate on TV

Those of you who made it through all the bickering and insult-slinging of Tuesday’s CNN debate would have heard Newt Gingrich, after time was called, again question the unwieldy format of televised debates.

The former Speaker of the House said if he were to win the Republican nomination, he would challenge President Obama to meet the Lincoln-Douglas standard of seven three-hour debates without a moderator, referencing those engaged in by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas when both were running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 1858, which drew the attention of the nation to the future president.

“We’d love to host those on CNN,” debate moderator Anderson Cooper responded to Gingrich’s proposal Tuesday night — as would any other network, presumably.

“In a perfect world, I wish we could do the debates the way Newt Gingrich wants to do them, where you have two candidates debate for 30 minutes,” Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent told B&C. “I’d love to do that if the viewers would tune in for that and the candidates would agree to do it.”

But that is a big if — getting candidates to agree to a different format — and it’s the reason we’ll likely never see a Lincoln-Douglas style debate on TV, despite the desire by networks — and some candidates — to mix it up.

“You make one phone call to one campaign consultant and they say ‘never going to happen,’” Todd says, adding the only candidates who will agree to non-traditional debates are ones who aren’t the front-runners. “The fact is you can’t get this done unless there is a frontrunner, unless everybody agrees to it. The irony is everybody says the media is controlling this — no, the front-runners control this. Once they decide to show up, then everybody shows up.”

Their hesitance is because the traditional debate format favors front-runners, as any time a candidate is mentioned in another’s response (and favorites are more likely to be called out), said candidate is given a chance to defend himself. The practice — displayed in full force between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on Tuesday — encourages candidates to attack each other to gain increased airtime.

“Let me point out a second that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House,” Gingrich said at the close of Tuesday’s debate. “And the technique you use maximizes going back and forth over and over again…”

But that of course, is precisely the point. As Perry said when Cooper urged him to straightly answer a question during the debate, “You get to ask the questions, and I get to answer how I want to.”

And as inefficient as that may be to the democratic process, for televised debates, that’s the way it’s likely to stay.