Friday, May 04, 2007


Let's Introduce Televised Debates for Party leaders Over Here Too

Reading about the Royal-Sarkozy television debate on Wednesday, brought home the fact that such confrontations seldom produce emphatic results. Every practising politician knows of the devastating Lloyd Bengston put down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice presidential debates: 'Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy'. It follows that often such contests are stubbornly fought draws with neither side willing to risk straying too far from prepared comfort zone territory. So it was with this debate except that the leader of the socialists surprised her opponent and her audience by directing some rather male aggression at Sarkozy, himself better known for his volatile small man machismo.

Probably the most famous televised political debate was the Kennedy -Nixon affair in 1960(pictured). Here Nixon was believed by car radio listeners to have shaded the contest but the greater number watching the little box saw Kennedy's film star profile, compared it with Nixon's dodgy five o'clock shadow and had no doubt as to who had won. Even allowing for the distortions of image makers, however, I think it would be good for our democracy to introduce televised debates.

Possibly one would have been allowed by Blair in 1997 had he been behind in the polls instead of miles ahead. As it was, he turned down Major's request for such a debate, presumably on the grounds that it would allow too much publicity to an opponent. A head to head confrontation would stimulate interest in a democracy which, at times in this country, can appear moribund. It would also show how Cameron performs under real pressure instead of the formalised rituals of the Commons. As for Gordon, it would give him a chance to unveil his formidable intellect and mastery of policy detail for the electorate to judge if he deserves to be elected prime minister rather than merely inherit the title for his erstwhile neighbour and rival.

Political nerds like you and I might be swayed by "formidable intellect and mastery of policy detail" but we both know the greater electorate aren't that sophisticated. If Cameron wore a tie and Brown booded too much....

Also interesting to note that in the US just over a week ago there was a televised debate between 8 candidates from the same party for leadership of the party (OK, I know, it's not technically that but you get my point). Quite a contrast with how Labour & Tory choose their 'man at the helm'?
Not wholly sure it's just politics nerds who are impressed with a confident or even masterful demeanour in such situations. It's possible to spot competence even if you are not that clued up on something oneself; eg my present doctor seems clearly more competent than my last yet I am ignorant of medicine.
As you know Skipper, I am not a Dave fan, but if you think the Dour One would beat him in a TV debate then you are indeed clutching at straws. When I have seen him on TV, Cameron looks very good. Well briefed, witty and sharp. He is a PR man and would emerge well. Brown on the other hand is awkward, not witty and at times appears clumsy. He is about to become Labour's greatest weakness. The bounce in the polls after his accession will put the Tories within sight of No 10 and if I was a Labour supporter(ha) I would be getting worried round about now.
I hate to nitpick but Nixon didn't win on radio. It's a myth. An oft-repeated one, but a myth nonetheless.

It was done by questionable social science back in the 60s and if you read the excellent "Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV" it gets quite thoroughly debunked.

Also you could check out:
Vancil, D. L., & Pendell, S. D. (1987).

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

Central States Speech Journal, 38, 16-27
I bow to your knowledge on this one; I was just accepting received wisdom- often a dangerous thing to do.
20 m, almost half the voting population, are said to have tuned it for at least part of the Sarkozy vs Royal debate. But the French are a far more philosophical race than the British and the bit I watched on BBC Parliament looked pretty heavyweight (maybe the dubbers didn't manage enough passion) and frankly rather dull. I'm afraid such an encounter over here would either be so hyped up and trivialised as to be anathema to Nerds R Us or so dull that few would watch.

I was in France on the day of their first round and watched some of the results programmes. What a contrast with ours! No fancy graphics, no Peter Snow with his swingometer, just a lot of fairly serious debate. Frustratingly I couldn't understand much of it and the lack of graphics meant waiting ages to find out who had made it into round 2! They do things differently over there, let's hope whoever wins doesn't try to make them as British-like as they've both threatened...
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