Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A preview of the first leaders' debate on TV

When it was announced that there would be televised leaders' debates during this election campaign, I did not share the general euphoria in the blogosphere.

My doubts about how Nick Clegg would fare have been largely assuaged by his assured performance so far, and whoever negotiated the arrangements on behalf of the Liberal Democrats deserves several medals. But I am still not convinced that the debates will make great viewing.

Everyone knows the story about how Nixon's poor performance in the first televised debate lost him the election to JFK, but they have not played the key role in American Presidential elections that some imagine.

Following Nixon's experience no televised debates took place in 1964, 1968 or 1972. Since then we have had Gerald Ford's faux pas about Eastern Europe not being under Soviet domination, flashes of effective humour from Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton's moments of folksy charm.

But for the most part the debates have not decisive. Those in the most recent election were positively dull.

My chief memory of these debates is the one in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Ford had clearly been told to smile, while Carter had been told not to smile too much. The result was that both spent the evening with fixed half-grins on their faces.

So what are the prospects for tomorrow?

Gordon Brown's strength is his knowledge of policy and master of detail. The American experience suggests that this will not play well against David Cameron's charm.

But things are different in Britain, where economic views tends to have a greater role in how people vote. Added to that, Cameron lacks Regan's warmth and may even put up some people's backs with that little hint of Flashman that is never far from the surface of his personality.

As for Nick Clegg... He will find the format a lot easier than he finds prime minister's questions in the Commons and I hope that will lead him to drop his Mr Angry persona and allow a little more light and shade into his performance.

Yes, Brown and Cameron are both Labservatives, but it would do Nick no harm to agree with one or other of them from time to time.

So good luck to Nick: I think he will be fine. But I will take some convincing that these debates are the key to re-engaging the public with politics, as some argued when they were announced.

My sympathies are rather with view of the elder George Bush. In one of his debates with Bill Clinton he was caught glancing at his watch, and this was thought to be a bad thing.

But as Bush later said:
“The media made a huge thing of that. You look at your watch and they say, ‘He shouldn’t be running for president: he’s bored and he’s out of it and we need change.’

“Was I glad when the damned thing was over? Yeah, and maybe that’s why I was looking at my watch — only 10 more minutes of this crap. Maybe if I’d have said that then I’d have done better."

1 comment:

dazmando said...

I was also worried about Clegg after his preformance on the politics show. however I think he has improve greatly and is now a very good preformer. I hope he relaxes because thats when Clegg is at his best. I think debate are important and having more than one is better although I expect this one will be the most popular. I imagine each will be a little different because of the TV companies and the presenter. More interesting is how it is reported. Well its going to happen soon anyway so I guess lets wait and see.