General Election 2010: How to Win the Great TV Debate

It took you Brits nearly 50 years to catch up with us Yanks. On September 26, 1960, a tanned and relaxed John Kennedy and a sallow and tense Richard Nixon entered the studios of WBBM-TV on McClurg Court in Chicago to engage in the first presidential debate-–and, importantly, the first televised presidential debate-–in American history.

This was not long after the dawn of the television age. In 1950, only 9 per cent of American households had television sets; by 1960, 87 per cent did. The first Kennedy-Nixon debate, broadcast on all three of the American commercial TV networks, was watched by an estimated 66 million people in a nation of 179 million.

It is generally believed that Kennedy, only 43 years old and in his eighth year in the Senate, won the debate because he appeared confident and healthy while Nixon, four years older and in his eighth year as vice president, seemed edgy and ill at ease, with his five o'clock shadow only partially hidden by a hasty application of Lazy Shave. It didn't help Nixon that he wore a light grey suit that blended into the (hastily repainted) background of the TV set, while Kennedy was dressed in authoritative dark grey.

The most important lesson, I believe, is that while style is important and appearance counts for something, the most important thing in presidential or prime ministerial debates is substance.

But content also mattered. Kennedy pounded home his theme relentlessly, that America needed to get moving again, with government reviving a recession-plagued economy and with (this was back when Democrats were hawks) higher defence spending. Nixon time and again defensively said that he and Kennedy agreed on goals and differed only on means. Lesson: it's not only how you look but what you say that matters.

This was the first of four debates between Kennedy and Nixon (neither of whom participated in another) and the first of 27 presidential and eight vice presidential debates held over the past half-century. I have watched all of them. I don't suppose that Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, or even any of their handlers, will have had time to do so. So here are some lessons.

An Incumbent Only Takes Part When He's Losing

This first lesson seems already to have been learned. An incumbent doesn't participate in a debate, at least not until the ritual is firmly established, unless he is operating from a position of weakness.

Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, all well ahead in the polls, brushed aside proposals for debates. Gerald Ford, way behind in 1976, agreed. So did Jimmy Carter in 1980, though he ducked debates until the Thursday before the Tuesday election by refusing to appear if third party candidate John Anderson was on the stage, a condition Ronald Reagan widely dropped.

In 1984, Reagan, running for re-election at the age of 73, had to show he was still up to snuff. That set the debate tradition in stone.

Avoid Gaffes

Gerald Ford in 1976 proclaimed that Poland wasn't under Soviet domination. Jimmy Carter in 1980 said his 13-year-old daughter Amy was worried about nuclear proliferation. Michael Dukakis in 1988 evinced no emotion when he was asked if he'd favour the death penalty for someone who raped his wife Kitty.

I note the increasing prominence of party leaders' wives in British politicking.

Have Some Brilliant Responses Ready

Here the champ is Ronald Reagan. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" he asked Americans in his summing up in 1980. The line was a direct steal from a Franklin Roosevelt pre-election radio broadcast in 1934, but apparently no one around but Reagan was old enough to remember that.

Asked about the age issue in 1984, Reagan generously promised not to bring up his opponent's "youth and inexperience". The 56-year-old and much-experienced Walter Mondale couldn't help joining in the laughter.

So far as I have been able to learn, none of Reagan's handlers suggested the lines and Reagan didn't tip them off in advance.

Don't Be Intimidated by a More Experienced Opponent

Gordon Brown has held ministerial office for 13 years-–13 years more than David Cameron or Nick Clegg. But the contrast was even more stark between America's two female vice presidential nominees and their debate opponents.

Geraldine Ferraro had worked on domestic relations cases in the Queens County district attorney's office and had been a backbencher in the House of Representatives for six years when she faced George H W Bush, the incumbent vice president (and former CIA director and envoy to China) in 1984. Sarah Palin had been mayor of Wasilla (population 5,469) and governor of Alaska for two years when she faced Joe Biden, then serving his 36th year in the United States Senate. Neither lady flinched and each held her own.

The biggest gaffe in the 2008 debate was the statement that Article I of the Constitution covers the president (it's about Congress) and it was committed by Biden. The liberal-leaning press, on the alert for Palin mistakes, didn't notice.

Don't Be Obnoxious

In the first debate between Al Gore and George W Bush in 2000, Gore audibly sighed at various Bush statements and walked over almost menacingly toward his opponent. Bush seemed to shrug and to smile slightly at these shenanigans. Gore's arrogance contrasted sharply with Bill Clinton's respectful demeanour when debating with the much older George H W Bush and Ross Perot in 1992.

I am sure that Gordon Brown and David Cameron each feels that he is enormously better suited to be prime minister than the others who will be on the stage (and perhaps Nick Clegg feels that way, too). But American voters don't like the kid who thinks he's the smartest one in the class, and I suspect British voters don't either.

Some of these lessons are surely well known to the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat debate prep teams. Gordon Brown will not use Lazy Shave make-up or the orange goo applied to Al Gore's face in one of the 2000 debates. David Cameron will not sigh and advance menacingly towards one of his rivals. Nick Clegg will not look at his watch, as George H W Bush did late in a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Each will try to avoid a bald misstatement of fact which will be the lead story in the next day's tabloids.

But Remember, Above All, That Substance Matters . . .

The most important lesson, I believe, is that while style is important and appearance counts for something, the most important thing in presidential or prime ministerial debates is substance.

Voters do not spend as much time and psychic energy on these things as we political insiders do. American presidential debates do not command as large a share of the audience these days as they did in 1960 or 1980, but they are one of the few opportunities a candidate for head of government has to communicate his priorities and his policies to those whose support he seeks.

While it's unwise to evade a question too obviously, it's a good idea to segue as quickly and seamlessly as possible to the message you intend to send. That was something John Kennedy did in 1960 and Ronald Reagan did in 1980. So did the "misunderestimated" George W Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Concentrate, smile, stay on message-–and be ready to pounce with the killer one-liners when the opportunity arises.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Pipiten/Flickr/Creative Commons

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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