Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich met Saturday night in Texas, for an event dubbed by its Tea Party hosts and the candidates as a “modified Lincoln-Douglas” style debate. Though in truth, it did not bear any resemblance to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 — either in terms of format, or in terms of any major disagreement on the big issues of the day.
Instead of the cacophony of eight or more candidates on one stage, as has been seen with the previous Republican debates, this even featured only two, with both of them putting forward a positive face — and even joking at different points about themselves becoming a presidential ticket together.
The 90-minute debate consisted of three sections of about a half-hour each, dedicated to the topics of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. The candidates spoke back and forth in a free-flowing fashion — initially starting out with a time-keeping format, but agreeing with each other to junk it fairly quickly — and without interrupting one another. Gingrich has been calling for such debates, and has said that if nominated he would challenge President Obama to the free-wheeling format that he has referred as “Lincoln-Douglas.”
Of course, this is nothing like the actual format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In that series of debates, held across different congressional districts of Illinois, the incumbent Sen. Stephen Douglas and the challenger Abraham Lincoln in fact did alternating speeches — not the Q&A debates that we know of today. The debates consisted of one candidate speaking for an hour, then the other for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate speaking again for half an hour, with the order alternating at each debate.
(Senators were chosen by state legislatures back then. But in that polarized environment, the state legislative races that year effectively became an electoral proxy battle for the Senate seat — with Lincoln’s anti-slavery Republicans winning the popular vote, but Douglas’s conservative Democrats keeping control of the legislature due to malapportionment of the districts. In this way Douglas was ‘reelected’.)
At the introduction Saturday night, the candidates put their arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling for a photo-op — with Gingrich joking that audience members might have just seen the 2012 ticket, but with the candidates disagreeing on which order it would be.
That joke came up at the end of he debate, when the candidates asked each other questions. Cain’s question to Gingrich: “Mr. Speaker, if you were Vice President of the United States (laughter from Gingrich and the audience) — what would you want the president to assign you to first?”
Gingrich’s answer: “Well, having studied my good friend, Dick Cheney, I would not go hunting.”
Also during that quick Q&A, Cain gave the only allusion of the whole night to his current scandal (involving past allegations of sexual harassment, and settlements that had been paid by the National Restaurant Association) when Gingrich asked him what about the campaign has most surprised him, compared to his past experience in the private sector.
“The nit-pickingness of the media,” Cain said, explaining that he had known “I would have to work hard, I knew I would have to study hard,” but that he was not fully prepared for the media onslaught — especially as it occurs when a candidate rises in the polls.
“If there is a journalistic standard, a lot of them don’t follow it. And as a result, too many people get misinformation and disinformation,” Cain said, to big applause throughout his whole answer. “So the actions and behavior of the media have been my biggest surprise. Now, this is probably going to be taken the wrong way, but I didn’t take political-correctness school. There are too many people in the media who are being dishonest. Not all of them, but too many are doing a disservice to the American people.”
Throughout the debate, both candidates spoke in favor of replacing government entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security with private savings accounts, for putting in place stricter limits on unemployment benefits and requiring that recipients undergo more job training.
For example, at the start of the debate, the candidates were asked whether they agreed with Paul Ryan’s plan to replace Medicare over time with a system of “premium supports” which would allow younger workers and future retirees to purchase private health insurance — a plan that badly tripped up Gingrich when he originally attacked it.
This time, Gingrich played it more diplomatically. “Now, I favor in choice a premium support model, but I do not favor a mandatory premium support model,” he said, explaining that workers should be given a variety of public and private choices — with him being confident that the free market would provide a better choice that workers would voluntarily take.
“If you’re dealing with something as big as Medicare, you can’t force people, because they will oppose you,” Gingrich said, then speaking at length about the need to fully re-examine entitlement programs, crack down on fraud and abuse, and get policymakers to think about the choices in front of them, before ending on a punchline: “And getting people in Washington to think is a very big challenge.”
Cain opened his own response by saying: “At this particular juncture I’m supposed to have a minute to disagree with something he said — but I don’t.” He then spoke about his experience in the private sector, and the value of companies being able to directly address and control costs, compared to the overruns of government programs.
“Long-term projections about what a program was gonna cost have never been right. Name one!” said Cain. “They’ve never been right. Now with that said, I believe as Speaker Gingrich believes, that we can’t reshuffle Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — we have to restructure them.”
Cain fully endorsed Ryan’s plan, saying that if workers are given ownership of their money and responsibility for their costs, they will spend it more wisely than the government would.
This point was echoed by Gingrich later in the debate, on health care policy over the decades. “Nobody thought through the consequences of a third-party payer system,” said Gingrich — saying that outside payers create a disconnect between the doctor who provides service, the patient who benefits, and the entity that pays for the treatment.
(Gingrich contrasted this with a customer at McDonald’s, who directly exchanges money for a burger, with both sides immediately seeing the transaction.)
Gingrich also boasted of himself and Cain: “We are by any reasonable standard the two most radical candidates in this. Because we are so willing to say common sense. And in Washington, D.C., common sense is so radical, it doesn’t count.”
Shortly thereafter, he said, “If you’re serious about health care reform, abolish the Congressional Budget Office,” calling the agency — which has positively scored President Obama’s health care proposals, and looked negatively on Republican ones, as “dishonest.”
On another topic, Social Security, Cain and Gingrich both spoke favorably about the “Chilean Model,” presenting it as a great positive for that country that could be duplicated here.
“I am a strong proponent of an idea that President George W. Bush introduced, but it couldn’t get any momentum,” said Cain. “And that is the idea of personal retirement accounts — optional personal retirement accounts. Thirty countries have optional personal retirement accounts — the Chilean Model. I started studying the Chilean Model, and asked, why can’t we do that? The answer is, we can. But the answer is, we have to fight the demagoguery whenever you try to fix the problem, and we have to fight all the people who don’t want the system to change.”
Cain said how the country of Chile replaced their pay-as-you-go retirement system with personal accounts, starting 30 years ago. “And today they don’t have the problems that we have trying to deal with Social Security,” he said.
(In fact, Chile has its own set of problems with its pension system — just different ones than the United States has. Click here for TPM’s layout of the actual policy, and its more complex picture of pluses and minuses that the country has worked its way through — and the fact that in its basic concept, it is the same thing as the “Obamacare” system of the individual mandate, which Republicans have insisted is unconstitutional.)
It’s hard to say whether debate had any “winner” or “loser,” as the candidates did not actually argue any vital points of policy or politics. However, it is clear that Newt Gingrich is determined to present himself a serious, top-tier candidate — and that Cain is eager to move on from the current scandal, and continue talking about his policy proposals and his overall political pitch to the GOP base.