BIRMINGHAM, England—As a way of focusing the public’s attention on an election, debates have much to recommend them. But going back to the first Kennedy-Nixon face-off in 1960, these encounters have elevated personality and self-presentation above questions of policy, intelligence, or the ability to govern. Since then, U.S. presidential elections have usually been won by the most telegenic candidate.
Why, then, did Gordon Brown agree to participate in a round of them? The charismatically challenged prime minister was bound to suffer in this kind of side-by-side comparison with his younger, better-looking challengers. And he did suffer, in the first two. His remaining hope tonight, if any, was to persuade voters to rise above superficial judgments about personality and rivet attention on his comparative advantages in handling the economy. Brown, the man who “saved the world financial system” in the words of Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, needed to speak from the heart and say explicitly: It doesn’t matter if you like me, the point is that you can rely on me, and me alone, to prevent a Greek scenario in Britain and to bring down the deficit without putting the economy back into a tailspin.
The prime minister did all this quite deftly and, in consequence, looked to me like the clear winner of Thursday’s debate—by far the most contentious and entertaining of the three. He hit the Ugly Duckling theme strongly at the outset. “As you saw yesterday, I don’t get all of it right. I do know how to run the economy,” he pleaded in his opening statement. “It’s not my future that matters. It’s your future that’s on the ballot paper next Thursday. And I’m the one to fight for your future.”
This was affecting. And for the rest of the evening, Brown hammered mercilessly at Conservative David Cameron’s policies—favoring the rich with inheritance and corporate tax cuts, not specifying the level of immigration he favors, and—most devastatingly—risking the recovery by cutting spending prematurely. Brown established that Cameron’s policy was out of sync with sound economic practice. “David is saying there need to be cuts now,” Brown said. “He will shrink the economy at a time when we need to support the economy. Let us please not make the mistake of the 1930s, the 1980s, and the 1990s—until the recovery is assured.” Brown broadened the point in a harsh but effective closing statement: “Things are too important to be left to risky policies under these two people. They are not ready for government because they have not thought through their policies.”
While Brown took aim at Cameron, Cameron trained his fire mainly at Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. Politically, the Conservative leader’s goal had to be to prick the Liberal Democrat bubble in hopes of getting across the finish line as the winner. But where Cameron was limp in responding to Brown (he claimed, for instance, that he must be right about his spending cuts, because business leaders agreed with him and not with Brown), many of his zingers aimed at Clegg hit their mark. As expected, Cameron challenged the Lib Dem leader on his past support for the euro and for supporting an amnesty for illegal immigrants—the one issue on which Brown joined in the pummeling of the man in the middle.
Clegg parried on both issues, pointing out that he would never favor joining the euro without a referendum, and demanding—in the evening’s most ferocious exchange—that Cameron acknowledge that most immigrants were legal visitors from other European Union countries. Eventually, Clegg vented his frustration with what he called Cameron’s misleading attacks, saying, in the evening’s best line, “Let’s just assume every time you talk about my policy, it’s wrong.”
But after winning the first two debates (the first hands-down, the second on points), Clegg’s act wore thin in the third. He did not succeed in establishing himself as a responsible choice, as opposed to a protest vote. He avoided further swithering on the question of a hung Parliament only by evading the issue entirely. What on previous occasions came across as a Bill Clinton-like gift for engaging with ordinary people felt too slick. “Tonight’s debate is about you,” he announced a little too giddily at the outset. And Clegg’s sucking up to every questioner was smarmy enough to elicit laughter and groans in the press room. (“I’m totally with you on this, Adina”; “Michael, you know this better than we do.”)
Gordon Brown had a terrible Wednesday and a good Thursday. I can’t imagine that it will reverse his decline, but he is not going down without a fight.