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UK Leaders’ Debate Debut

The following piece was written in the hour after the historic April 15 leaders’ debate in the UK and published by the Guardian the next day.

From an American perspective, there was a clear winner in the first-ever UK party leaders debate, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg. He looked sharp, was consistently articulate, and was able to challenge the other two candidates pointedly and effectively. By contrast, the other candidates gave unmemorable performances. Just as advertised, the incumbent Labour Prime Minister seemed to belong to a pre-television era. Gordon Brown came across as old and leaden without seeming especially wise. The Tories’ David Cameron was stiff and occasionally uncertain, with an upper-class manner that appeared high-handed at times.

Having said that, Clegg had it easy. At least until this debate, almost no one thought of him as the next prime minister, so the pressure was off. Both Brown and Cameron were respectful and friendly because they coveted his voters. Both the Labour and Tory candidates occasionally used Clegg as a battering ram against the real opponent.

In an American context, the three party leaders were marvelously articulate, putting U.S. politicians to shame, including Barack Obama—who can be stilted without his teleprompter. This was a debate steeped in details and policy. There were plenty of memorized soundbites, yet the format encouraged quick thinking and gave voters a sense of the mental agility of each candidate.

The subjects of the questions were familiar to anyone who watched the 2008 U.S. presidential clashes: immigration, education, the health care system, and war. The answers were different, for sure. Americans wouldn’t necessarily have recognized the reasonable, constructive, multi-party approach to immigration, the informative commentary about educational reform, and the consensus about the worth of government-organized health care. Only the sobering exchange about Afghanistan caused déjà vu.

The debate wasn’t perfect. The exchanges were too short, too often interrupted, and difficult for some viewers to interpret. The most vital question for the voter: Who was right and wrong on the facts of each subject?

The post-debate fact-checkers for all three encounters have the most vital job to do, and voters need to pay attention. If a candidate frequently misstates or invents arguments, he should be punished for it. Exaggeration is a part of politics, but there is a difference between stretching the truth and breaking it. As many U.S. presidential debates have proven, a serious gaffe can cost a party millions of votes. There was no obvious one in this first great debate, but it will be truly amazing if the leaders can maneuver their way through three of them without a misstep.

Editor’s Note: Voters in Britain had the same view as Sabato. Overnight polls showed Clegg the big winner of the first debate, and his ratings have soared, so much so that the election is virtually a three-way tie. (Oddly, under Britain’s archaic system of malapportionment, this would guarantee that Labour would win a plurality of seats, since Brown’s party has so many small, lightly voting constituencies that are not electorally competitive.)

Will the UK’s first debate be seen historically as the equivalent of the initial Kennedy-Nixon face-off in September 1960, which almost certainly gave JFK the momentum he needed to defeat the incumbent vice president? It’s possible, but Nick Clegg will have to emerge from a highly imperfect electoral system as the new Prime Minister. That means he must survive the attacks that are surely coming his way in the second debate (which takes place today) and the final debate on April 29th. Gordon Brown and David Cameron will be determined not to let this happen. On with the show!