Abraham Lincoln was at a clear disadvantage.
Hardly any name recognition. Meager, worn clothes bereft of the wealth and class of a full-time politician. No major legislative policy wins to speak of, even as a former one-term Congressman.
But Lincoln was a student of history, of deep, evolving thought on the issues of his time, of storytelling, and he knew, as an Illinois candidate vying for a U.S. Senate seat in 1858, debating his opponent Stephen Douglas was important. He did so seven times between August and October of that year.
In a country brimming with the most discontent and disagreement since its revolutionary birth, and with an opponent whose ideas were fundamentally different from his own, Lincoln showed up. He gave his opponent equal time. He participated.
He did so at a time when his country was splitting in two, like the Idaho Republican Party – and the country as a whole – seems to be at growing odds with itself now.
Last week, three prominent Idaho Republican candidates for public office announced they will refuse to face members of their own party to talk politics on live TV. Gov. Brad Little, who is seeking a second term; state Rep. Priscilla Giddings, who is seeking higher office as lieutenant governor; and Congressman Mike Simpson, who is seeking his 13th term in the U.S. House, let Idaho voters down by announcing they would not publicly debate their opponents in the Idaho Debates, a 30-year tradition hosted by Idaho Public Television.
This isn’t the way the party of Lincoln used to handle things, even when the situation wasn’t exactly heading in their favor.
Douglas, considered to be a presidential favorite of the Democrats, was a well-known entity to Illinois voters, having crafted the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act that would allow new U.S. states to decide for themselves if they would allow the enslavement of human beings within their borders.
To Lincoln’s horror, the act undid the 30-year-old Missouri Compromise, which had prevented slavery from expanding in the U.S. as the country looked West. The act propelled him to debate and step back into the political spotlight to find solutions. The act eventually put our country on a collision course with dissolution of the union and civil war over slavery.
Douglas and Lincoln, however, didn’t shy away from their differences as the country wrangled with this, perhaps its most pressing and controversial issue ever. Like many of Idaho’s political candidates today, they knew each other. They met nearly 20 years before around a fire, exchanging ideas at Joshua Speed’s general store in Illinois, notes Doris Kearns Goodwin in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” Decades later, they weren’t afraid to meet each other face-to-face and discuss their plans for the country before a crowd in a public square.
“The choice we face, (Lincoln) told them, is all of ours together,” Goodwin wrote, paraphrasing Lincoln at one of the debates. “If we allow the Kansas-Nebraska Act to stand, if we allow slavery to spread, then the hope of America and all that it means to the whole world will be extinguished.”
There was another option for the country, Lincoln told the crowd: Americans working together.
“We shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving,” Lincoln debated.
And even though he didn’t win that particular Senate race, and as the country fell into two camps fighting each other as Lincoln predicted it would – as Idaho candidates are now – his participation in those debates undeniably set this country on a path for a more perfect union forever.
Policy differences should be the reason to debate, not keep Idahoans apart
Now, Idaho also finds itself on two conservative paths.
There’s an old saying someone recently mentioned to me that “Republicans fall in line, while Democrats fall in love” with their candidates. But in this election, there are identifiable, stark policy differences between GOP candidates running for statewide office, perhaps more so now in Idaho than in recent memory.
The May 17 GOP primary election will be a litmus test for the party’s own future. Will it be a party that advocates for fiscal conservatism, for balanced budgets and for limited, local government, or will voters agree with the far-right wing of the party that advocates for divesting from public education, for government intrusion into private health care decisions and for demonizing election workers by upholding baseless claims that threaten the legitimacy of our electoral process and its results?
Idaho voters have a right to hear about those ideas and differences directly from the candidates themselves – without the safety net and comfort that one-sided advertisements, social media posts, anonymous and inflammatory political fliers and dark campaign money provides.
But that isn’t what they’re getting in these three major races on the GOP primary ballot.
Each candidate gave slightly different reasons for bowing out on Idaho voters. Little said his policy record is “non-debatable,” Giddings demanded to approve the list of reporters who would serve on the panel (which is not allowed under debate rules) and Simpson made the sweeping assertion to the Idaho Press that Idaho voters had heard enough from his opponent. These candidates effectively put themselves above reproach and, in the same breath, silenced their opponents and their supporters by not allowing the debates to go on due to fair-time consideration rules outlined by organizers.
It should be noted that there is a contested Democratic primary race between Ben Pursley and David Roth for one of Idaho’s U.S. Senate seats, and a contested Libertarian primary race for governor between John Dionne Jr. and Paul Sand, where at least one candidate didn’t submit materials on time or said they did not want to participate in the debates. That’s shameful as well.
Despite repeatedly saying we need to bring back and build trust in government throughout his first term, Little is the first sitting governor seeking re-election to refuse to participate in the Idaho Debates in more than three decades. KTVB reports Little took that decision a step further by refusing to participate in any debate before the primary.
Giddings, who faced intense ethical scrutiny from her legislative peers, the public and editorial writers in the state after doxxing an alleged rape victim online, now lacks the courage to face those decisions head on as she seeks the second-highest office in Idaho.
Simpson, who did face his opponent Bryan Smith at the Idaho Debates in May 2014, has served Idaho in this capacity since 1999 and has understood that debating is, in fact, part of the job. Until now.
The announcements came as Republicans capitulated on a national level when the Republican National Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to stop its 35-year tradition of participating with the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, citing a bias within the organization on the timing of the debates and its moderators.
In a tweet posted Friday, the Idaho Republican Party doubled down on this idea, mocking Idaho Debates organizers and demanding that partisanship be introduced into the process. The debates are a nonpartisan effort supported by Boise State University’s School of Public Service, the University of Idaho’s McClure Center, Idaho State University’s Department of Political Science, the League of Women Voters’ Voter Education Fund, Idaho Public Television and the Idaho Press Club.
Mark last week down as another flashpoint on the bleak timeline of steady decay within our political process and erosion of basic political decorum.
Let these decisions startle and impassion us all. Let them motivate Idahoans to hold accountable the politicians who won’t face public inquiry and who won’t advocate for their own policies, track records and ideas for the future of the Gem State.
Douglas and Lincoln debated seven times, three hours at a time, in front of thousands of people across Illinois’ multiple congressional districts. They forced Lincoln to confront, and more importantly, evolve his beliefs about slavery that eventually lead him to the path of emancipation.
Know that the politicians of today who make decisions to refuse to meet each other in the public square now discredit our country’s long tradition of public debate, such as the Republican Party’s own shining example in Lincoln, and they embolden the politicians of the future to hide behind cowardice and inaccessibility.
With its wide accessibility and viewership, the Idaho Debates program is one of the most effective ways for candidates to reach thousands of Idaho voters to earn their trust, understanding and support at the ballot box.
“Idaho Public Television reaches nearly every household in the state, and we know from past comments that many Republican primary voters rely on debates to inform their decisions at the ballot box,” said debate moderator Melissa Davlin of Idaho Public Television in a news release.
Idahoans are facing true hardship: desperately high property taxes, the worst inflation in decades, a booming population in a stressed housing market, a worn transportation and infrastructure system, and a vilified public education system.
Idahoans are looking to hear from the next crop of leaders on what their plans are to solve these problems.
It’s a true shame, in some of these primary races, that they won’t.
The schedule of confirmed Idaho Debates is:
- Tuesday: Republican attorney general debate, featuring Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, former U.S. Congressman Raúl Labrador and attorney Arthur “Art” Macomber.
- April 25: Republican superintendent of public instruction debate featuring Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, former State Board of Education president Debbie Critchfield and former state Sen. Branden Durst.
- April 26: Republican secretary of state debate featuring state Rep. Dorothy Moon, state Sen. Mary Souza and Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane.
All debates are broadcast at 8 p.m. local time and are streamed live at 8 p.m. mountain time on Idaho Public Television’s YouTube channel. The debates are broadcast live on Idaho Public Television for viewers who live in the Mountain Time Zone, but delayed until 8 p.m. Pacific time for viewers in North Idaho. More information about the Idaho Debates is available online.
Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: [email protected]. Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.