Lessons for American Politicians From the British TV Debates

In preparing for the United Kingdom's first-ever prime ministerial debates, the British political and media establishment sought extensive guidance from the U.S. and its 50-year track record of presidential debates. As things turned out, the Brits didn't need our help. The three-debate series that ended last night has turned the tables, offering a range of lessons that American politicians would do well to heed.

Lesson One: Debate prep can be a bridge too far. Both of the two major-party candidates--Gordon Brown of Labour and David Cameron of the Conservatives-- imported high-priced American political consultants to assist with their debate prep. Yet it was third-party candidate Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats who prevailed, especially in the opening debate--and Clegg is the one candidate who did not shell out for American advice. His naturalistic approach stood in contrast to the more mechanical efforts of his opponents, whose debate prep was too often visible on the air. Of course it makes sense for candidates to rehearse for a high-stakes TV debate. But over-preparation can be just as damaging as no preparation at all.

Lesson Two: Prepackaged debate zingers do not guarantee dividends. By and large, the British debates did not include the kinds of zingers that American matches routinely feature. Still, the party leaders could not always resist the temptation to lapse into their rehearsed lines, even though these efforts tended to fall flat. In the second debate, when Gordon Brown compared his two opponents to his squabbling sons at bath-time, Clegg shot back: "It's a good line in rehearsal." News photos later showed the "bath-time" reference written on Brown's crib sheet at the lectern. In the third debate it was Clegg who went for the zinger, invoking Ronald Reagan by saying of his rivals, "There they go again." This did not play well either. Moral of the story: overly obvious zingers will almost always land with a thud, and are therefore best avoided.

Lesson Three: In the absence of manufactured conflict, the media will report on policy differences. Yes, British press coverage included its share of fatuousness, particularly when it came to providing post-debate platforms to party spinners. But to a degree we don't see in America, journalistic treatment of these events focused on content as much as delivery. For this the debaters themselves deserve much of the credit. By depriving the media of contrived sound bites and pseudo-dramatic confrontations, the candidates managed to shift the post-debate analysis onto more substantial ground.

Lesson Four: Mastery of content matters as much as mastery of style. With American candidates, fluency on television can take precedence over command of the material. Over the course of these three P.M. debates, the intelligence and thoughtfulness of all three British party leaders came through loud and clear, in a way that should make voters in the U.S. envious. History indicates that it is possible to bluff your way through an American TV debate--that would probably not be the case in the U.K.

Lesson Five: Dialogue among debaters is a good thing. Although the format of the British debates was not without flaws, it did encourage a good deal of interaction among the candidates. In American debates the participants tend to direct their responses to the moderator or the audience, for fear of being caught off-guard by their opponents. In 2008, for example, moderator Jim Lehrer had to literally coax Barack Obama and John McCain into speaking to each other. The P.M. candidates, by contrast, had no difficulty engaging in dialogue--and the result was an interesting and educational exchange of ideas.

Lesson Six: Treat your opponents with respect. Remember when John McCain refused to make eye contact with Barack Obama in the first presidential debate of 2008? Or when George H.W. Bush questioned the patriotism of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Michael Dukakis in 1988? Or when Al Gore walked menacingly up to George W. Bush in 2000? American debaters too often believe they can diminish their opponents by going after them on a personal level. The three British debaters did not shirk from attacks, but they attacked each other's positions, not each other as human beings.

Lesson Seven: Treat the audience with respect. This, of course, is the most fundamental lesson of all. One of the most impressive aspects of the British debates was the degree to which the candidates approached the voters as adults. Example: Asked a question about the Vatican sexual abuse scandal, Nick Clegg began his answer by stating, "I am not a man of faith." In the U.S. post-debate pundits would have focused on nothing else, replaying the sound bite ad nauseum. In the U.K. the remark barely rated a mention. The British party leaders were not always so forthcoming in their verbiage--they are politicians, after all--but they seemed to understand that debates require making an intellectual, as well as an emotional, case. They did not talk down to the audience. Unfortunately for American voters, our candidates do not always accord us the same respect.