David Cameron’s proposal to hold only one seven-party TV debate prior to the May General Election has been met with derision by his political opponents. This is not surprising given that the other parties’ best hopes of covering their own policy flaws is through carefully-orchestrated attacks on Cameron during a live debate. Cameron, meanwhile, has made and reasoned and sensible decision.
TV debates are rarely easy for the incumbent. As the focal point for all criticism, a leader will often look as if he is floundering simply because the majority of attacks are aimed at him. Challengers, meanwhile, have the benefit of hindsight to dismiss every policy move made by the present government, creating an impression of strength and foresight.
Quite simply, TV debates often hinge on such unimportant factors as appearance, charisma and luck. A skilled politician may have all these things but they are not essential to ensuring good governance. In a few minutes, a political campaign can be broken by an off-the-cuff remark, an untimely bead of sweat or an unfortunate grimace. Cameron knows this and he is wise to try and stay clear of something that – for no political reason – can only hurt him.
The USA popularised the televised political debate and it was during its first incarnation during the Presidential Election of 1960 that its pitfalls immediately became apparent. Incumbent Vice-President Richard Nixon took a hammering against the up-and-coming Democratic nominee, John F Kennedy. What turned the public against Nixon during the debate was not so much his policy points but his appearance. Looking gaunt and unkempt after a gruelling campaign and a bout of illness, Nixon appeared weak in comparison to the well-rested, good-looking Kennedy. Most commentators see the debate as the turning point in the outcome of the election.
Another infamous example came during the 1980 election campaign when Ronald Reagan used a series of charismatic put-downs to undermine the credibility of incumbent Jimmy Carter. Granted, Carter did not help himself by declaring that he had discussed nuclear policy with his prepubescent daughter. Yet, Reagan still humiliated Carter. In response to a barrage of criticism regarding his Governorship of California, Reagan merely sighed and said: ‘there you go again’. With a casual and humorous retort, Reagan had made the audience immediately forget Carter’s attack and the President was made to look like a child himself such was the nature of the admonishment.
TV debates also favour the outsider, particularly if more than two parties are present. Independent Ross Perot caused a stir after an impressive TV performance during the 1992 US Presidential Election. Nick Clegg, a man since proven to be devoid of ideas or leadership quality, achieved a similar spike in popularity for the Liberal Democrats following the first TV debate in the 2010 UK General Election.
Many people voted for Clegg in 2010 because of his performances during the debates and yet such is the disappointment in his subsequent political efforts as part of the coalition government that the Liberal Democrats are no longer the UK’s third most popular party. Indeed, they could conceivably finish sixth in May.
TV debates in no way reflect reality and they rarely have anything important to say in terms of policy which is, essentially, what people should be voting for. Cameron has rightfully calculated that his opponents are devoid of any significant policy initiatives and that they merely want a series of debates so that they can attack his record, whilst simultaneously making wild promises which they would never honour once in power.
In outlining his proposal, Cameron has made this General Election about policy and accountability, not bluster and negativity. He is an incumbent unwilling to relinquish his throne before the eyes of the nation.