UK's First Televised Prime Ministerial Debates: Game Changers

06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How have Britons survived all these years without televised candidate debates? For half a century here in America, TV debates have supplied memorable lines and defining moments; it's hard to imagine an election year without them.

Oh, I know that most of the spontaneity and substance was long ago wrung out of them; we should have known this would happen from the beginning. What do you know about the very first TV debate, between Kennedy and Nixon? I can't quote a single line from either candidate, but I know that JFK agreed to wear makeup and Nixon didn't. That should have been an early sign that down through the years, style would matter more than substance.

Of course, debate style can win elections (Kennedy's certainly did), and debate gaffes can lose them. Ronald Reagan's classic "There you go again" dismissal of Jimmy Carter in 1980 helped change the dynamic of the campaign, and Gerald Ford's jaw-dropping assertion in 1976 that the Soviets didn't dominate Eastern Europe may have sealed his electoral fate. I was in the hall in 1988 when debate moderator Bernard Shaw asked an incendiary, over-the-line question of Michael Dukakis: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" What Dukakis should have done is walked out from behind the podium, punched Bernie in the nose, and said "Don't you dare use my wife in your little hypothetical horror;" instead, he gave a completely dispassionate boilerplate reply. I distinctly remember turning to my CBS colleague Ed Bradley, and we both said the same words at the same time: "He's gonna lose."

In the three UK Prime Ministerial debates, there don't seem to have been any exchanges or one-liners or gaffes that will be remembered as truly pivotal (Gordon Brown managed to have his big foot-in-mouth blunder away from the debate stage). But the televised sessions have nonetheless been crucial in changing the entire direction of the campaign. Both Gordon Brown and (especially) David Cameron must be kicking themselves for agreeing to let third-party (Liberal Democrat) leader Nick Clegg share the stage and the klieg lights. In just 90 minutes of debate number one, he stole from Cameron the 'change candidate' title, and he fueled the 'throw the bums out' voter sentiment that has bedeviled Brown and his in-power-for-13-years Labour party. Yes, the UK debates have all been carefully stage-managed minuets; I'll wager that all three candidates brought their own makeup artists along, and, as in America, I imagine there were endless negotiations over the height of the podiums and the shape of the water glasses. But they've made a real difference, and even though it took 50 years to adopt them, there's no turning back now.

The irony, of course, is that Britain has a long tradition of public debate between its leading politicians; it's called Prime Minister's Question Time, and it happens once a week on the floor of the House of Commons. The head of government stands two swords-lengths away from the leader of the opposition, and they go at it in a fashion that's far more free-wheeling and entertaining than any formal candidate debate. Since we've now 'loaned' them our TV debate formula, wouldn't it be fun if America could find a way to borrow that tradition from the UK?