What’s in a Debate?

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An excellent primer lies below from TIME’s London bureau chief, Catherine Mayer, of what to expect from Thursday night’s second ever debate of British prime ministerial candidates. The first debate catapulted Nick Clegg into newfound stardom – he’s even overtaken or tied Prime Minister Gordon Brown in some polls — so it’ll be interesting to see if Brown and, more importantly, Conservative candidate  David Cameron attack Clegg this time around, particularly on the Trident issue as Catherine notes below.

Watching President Barack Obama parry with congressional Republicans not long ago in Baltimore reminded me of the twenty-odd debates he had as a presidential wannabe with Hillary Clinton. When he began, arguably, he was quite green. But by the end, he learned lessons that have carried through his presidency. In the U.K., Prime Ministers often meet their opponents on the floor of Parliament for grilling sessions. But that does not make for the easy 30- or 15 second soundbyte that plays well with debate audiences at home.*Often, the more wonkish, like Obama, take time to adjust to the world of pithiness. The first debate, as Catherine noted, bordered on somnambulant. This time around the subject matter is more interesting at home and abroad (foreign affairs) and, as Catherine notes, the anchor will hopefully be livlier. We shall see if anyone has learned the dubious art of speaking in tv clips, as the British ask themselves: is speaking in soundbytes a defining quality of a leader? Sadly, in the U.S. it is.  

Tomorrow at 8pm British Summer Time millions of Britons will settle in front of their tellys to watch three men in suits try to knock lumps out of each other on questions of foreign policy. On this 90-minute talkfest, so many Brits now believe, hangs the outcome of the country’s May 6 election.
 
Expectations of the country’s first ever presidential-style TV debate between the leaders of the country’s three biggest parties on April 15 were much lower. Wise pundits scratched their heads over the question of whether these debates would impact on the campaign at all and opined well, yes, probably, but only at the margins. The pundits guessed that the U.K. debates, like more recent presidential clashes, would not produce a Bentsen moment. (The 1988 vice presidential debate memorably saw Lloyd Bentsen not just skewer his opponent, Dan Quayle, but vaporize him, after Quayle foolishly compared himself to JFK. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” said Bentsen.)
 
The pundits were right. Admittedly there were some clangers. Most notably, Conservative David Cameron, usually the smoothest and most self assured of performers, appeared to bracket Iran and China, when he argued against his Liberal Democrat opponent Nick Clegg, who advocates scrapping the expensive replacement for Britain’s aging fleet of nuclear submarines. ‘Are we really happy to say that we’d give up our independent nuclear deterrent when we don’t know what is going to happen with Iran, we can’t be certain of the future in China?’ asked Cameron. The next day Britain’s (Labour) Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a stinging, Bentsenesque rebuke, accusing Cameron of “appalling immaturity.” But during the debate itself, Cameron, Clegg and the Prime Minister Gordon Brown treated each other with politeness that bordered on servility when Brown spoke to Clegg, whose smaller party might potentially shore up a Labour minority government if the elections produce a hung parliament. (Note to U.K. election-geeks: the parties that prefer such a scenario to an outright win by the Tories now speak of a “balanced” rather than a “hung” parliament.)
 
But the pundits were also spectacularly wrong. The first debate proved a launchpad for the phenomenon known as Cleggmania that has seen the Liberal Democrats overtake Labour and in some polls even the Conservative frontrunners in popularity.
 
That’s why the second debate on April 22, this time moderated by one of Britain’s most acerbic and unyielding anchors, Adam Boulton, may pull in an even bigger crowd than the 9.4 million viewers who watched last week, despite being broadcast on the satellite channel Sky (it will also be shown in full, later in the evening, on the terrestrial channel BBC 2). At this very moment, Conservative and Labour spin doctors are searching for the material that could do for Clegg’s ambitions what Bentsen did for Quayle’s.

But the debate remains the key battleground. Cameron is likely to return to the subject of Trident – better prepared this time. Though four generals wrote to The Times in support of Clegg’s position on Britain’s nuclear deterrent, 53% of respondents to a newly published Royal United Services Institute survey of its members in the defense and security community argue that Trident must be renewed. Clegg’s pro-European views are also likely to come under attack. He’ll play what he hopes is a trump card, the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to the Iraq war.
 
Will this debate prove another game changer? No idea, but Jay and I will be providing some instant analysis after the broadcast.

Aye, there’s the rub. Quayle went on to become Vice President. Bentsen did not. Cameron, who has much more to lose than Brown (it’s much easier to envisage a Lib Dem alliance with Labour, and anyway the Tories still hope for an overall majority), has to hope that the vehicle that created Cleggmania can also kill it.
 
Even if the coming debate potentially has such deathly powers, parts of Britain’s print media are working to weaken Clegg in advance by attacking him on a subject that has hitherto worked in his favor: MPs’ expense claims. Here’s a piece by the Independent’s Ian Burrell describing the first skirmishes. A potentially more damaging story appears in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph.

But the debate remains the key battleground. Cameron is likely to return to the subject of Trident – better prepared this time. Though four generals wrote to The Times in support of Clegg’s position on Britain’s nuclear deterrent, 53% of respondents to a newly published Royal United Services Institute survey of its members in the defense and security community argue that Trident must be renewed. Clegg’s pro-European views are also likely to come under attack. He’ll play what he hopes is a trump card, the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to the Iraq war.
 
Will this debate prove another game changer? No idea, but Jay and I will be providing some instant analysis after the broadcast.

*This teaches me to NOT weigh in on subjects about which I’m still learning. Catherine tells me that the Prime Minister’s questions are actually all about the soundbytes. I shall limit my observations tonight to simply those of a marooned American political correspondent in London watching from the outside. Abject apologies.

 

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