Can Cameron Make This His JFK Moment?
Byline: William REES-MOGG
Presidential debates have become a routine part of American presidential elections since the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which helped Kennedy win his narrow victory.
American historians can recall the issue on which the debate turned. That was Kennedy's allegation, subsequently disproved, that the Eisenhower administration had allowed a 'missile gap' to develop between the Soviet Union and the United States.
It is true that this debate was a turning point in the presidential campaign, but that had little to do with the missile gap. It had everything to do with the appearance of the two men. Kennedy was an attractive young man with an Irish sense of humour. Nixon was pasty-faced and looked in need of a shave.
Kennedy spoke in the clipped accents of a proper Bostonian, with upper-class style, though his ancestors had come over from Ireland in the 19th Century. With the television audience, Kennedy won because he had a stronger personal attraction. In the Nineties, Tony Blair was the British equivalent of Kennedy.
Since 1960, America has always had a presidential debate as part of the presidential campaign; now Britain has one and it seems certain that will become a tradition. In this campaign, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will submit themselves to debates; each one will last for an hour-and-a-half. National attention may wander.
Between 1960 and 2010, Britain avoided the presidential debate, partly because these are parliamentary, not presidential elections, but mainly because these debates cannot be controlled by campaign managers.
As in 1960, the damage has usually been done to the candidate's image rather than his argument. Voters are much more likely to decide their vote on the basis of their empathy for a candidate than on policy. That was how Kennedy and Blair won their elections.
The ordinary broadcast appeal allows the candidate to emphasise those aspects of his image and of his party's policies that will be to his advantage. It is harder to manipulate a debate. Each of the three candidates in this Election has an image problem. Clegg, who will be speaking first, is the least known to the public.
Britain operates on a two-and-ahalf party system, and Clegg is the leader of the half party. More often than not, the news media simply forgets about the Lib Dems. The real gainers from the decision to hold debates are therefore the Lib Dems, because they are awarded parity of publicity. This is something both larger parties may live to regret.
Brown, on the other hand, has the problem of being overexposed; he has been Chancellor or Prime Minister for 13 years. …