American election debates are even more contentious than their British counterparts

NEW YORK — The advent of American-style TV debates as part of the British electoral landscape proved hugely popular during the 2010 and 2015 general election campaigns. Yet for broadcasters, organising an event that can have such a decisive impact on the result (the 2010 success of the Liberal Democrats started with a strong debate performance by Nick Clegg) is a difficult exercise, balancing fairness to the candidates while providing a service to the electorate — all while creating a watchable spectacle.

Witness David Cameron’s machinations before the 2015 election in which the prime minister laboured to participate in the fewest debates with the most possible candidates. As the incumbent, he had the most to lose by either making a mistake or inadvertently bestowing statesmanlike parity on his rivals. The opposite ran true for the non-incumbents, whose natural inclination was to target the prime minister in the hope of gaining an imprimatur of legitimacy.

If dragging Cameron into a studio to face his adversaries was a testing task for the British broadcasters, that obstacle seems trite compared to the brouhaha engulfing the first Republican primary debate of the 2016 presidential election, scheduled for Cleveland, Ohio on August 6th.

The debate is being produced by a partnership of Fox News, Facebook and the Republican Party with the broadcaster deciding the best format would be to limit the number of candidates to 10. A second debate organised by CNN with the same format is scheduled for September. Unfortunately, there are currently 17 Republicans vying for the nomination, the largest presidential primary field in the history of the Party. So who makes the cut?

Fox News and CNN plan to use an average from five major national polls ahead of the debates. Unfortunately, polls are often wrong, particularly with some candidates polling similarly low numbers. Also, early polls tend to favour candidates with better name recognition. As such, the 10 candidates on stage in Ohio may not be the best 10 candidates in the Republican field.

Some are guaranteed a place on stage due to their consistent high polling. Businessman Donald Trump, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will, short of a meltdown in the next two weeks, be at the debate.

Ted Cruz, who has suffered most from the Kraken-like emergence of Trump, is still likely safe. Trump’s nativist siren song has enchanted the party’s populist wing, a role formerly occupied by the Texas senator. Yet Cruz is polling high enough to not miss out. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, however, are in peril should a rival candidate surge.

Even if those 10 are the final selection, some heavyweight candidates will miss out, including former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who came second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary race, winning 11 states. Ohio Governor John Kasich (whose state hosts the debate) would also sit on the bench, alongside Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York Governor George Pataki.

Critics, including Santorum, have complained about the “arbitrary” nature of the 10-person cut off, which could have far-reaching consequences for the nomination and even the Presidency. Those candidates who do make the cut will benefit from huge national exposure not only to prospective donors but also to voters in states the elect the Republican nominee early. Exclusion from the first two debates will, in effect, smother candidacies in their crib.

This has pushed some candidates to spend precious campaign dollars trying to secure enough support just to appear at the debate. Other aspirants – Graham and Perry – have turned on frontrunner Trump, hoping to build their profile by attacking the playground bully. Some have used the media to call for a rethink of the format, including Jindal, who argued in the Wall Street Journal that “all 16 candidates” should debate. Or as Graham brusquely reflected on the selection criteria, “It sucks.

The Republican National Committee hatched a plan to limit the 2016 primary race to just nine televised events hoping of avoid the exhaustive 2012 schedule in which candidates bloodied each other over 22 debates. The longer debate schedule gave Democrats time to organise, while leaving little more than a Romney Husk by the time he emerged the eventual Republican nominee.

As RNC Chairman Reince Priebus reflected after the 2012 defeat, “While we were playing footsie debating each other 22 times, they [the Democrats] were spending $100 million on technology.”

The move to limit the debates was designed to help Republican candidates with the aim of recapturing the presidency. However, by handing control of the debate mechanics to the broadcasters who, for production reasons have limited the number of participants, the RNC may well have distorted the democratic process, while inadvertently intensifying the internecine bloodshed.

Having reality TV star Trump and conservative author Carson on the stage makes for great TV. Yet having them ahead of senators and governors dilutes the Republican field. Also, unlike the British debates in April, which boasted three female participants, American voters will not be given a chance to hear the only woman in the Republican race, former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Fiorina. As one of the lesser-known and lesser-funded candidates, a good debate performance could help the impressive Texan break out into the mainstream, while giving the field at least a whiff of diversity. That is unlikely to happen.

Yet despite the criticism, Fox News and CNN have shown no inclination to adjust the format. As Fox News Executive Vice President of News Michael Clemente told Bloomberg earlier this month: “National polls are the traditional, time-tested yardstick by which presidential hopefuls have long been measured and remain the fairest, most objective and most straight-forward metric for gauging the viability of these candidates.”

And why should they adjust the format? They are in the ratings business not the democracy business and will do whatever creates the most compelling TV. The problem rests with the RNC, which has done nothing to force a compromise. As Curt Anderson, a consultant to Jindal’s campaign, recently noted: “The Republican Party should be looking forward instead of backward — and seeking every opportunity to feature its roster of excellent candidates, rather than trying to find ways to constrict the field.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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The certain world of Michele Bachmann

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week revealed that Michele Bachmann had consolidated her position as the second place candidate behind Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. According to the figures, the senator from Minnesota now commands 14 per cent of the national vote, near doubling her support amongst Republicans in the last month. Yet despite a solid showing in the recent CNN debate, her rise remains as baffling to many Americans as it does to those monitoring events from further afield.

In a week in which the scandal engulfing the UK saw the main political parties round on Rupert Murdoch hoping that condemnation leads to disassociation, it is heartening to know that we can nearly always rely on our politicians to do what’s in their own best interests. Ideological motivations and the occasional twinge of altruism aside, convictions in Westminster seem to bend according to the prevailing wind.

For Bachmann, however, public office seems less inspired by the trappings of power and status and more informed by the certainty of her faith. This is politics as an extension of religious belief, with her candidacy a national platform on which to evangelise the Christian message.

Faith and politics have long been bedfellows across the Atlantic, with every president since Abraham Lincoln paying lip service to The Almighty. It’s a sage move; as recently as 2007 a Gallup Poll suggested that more than 50 per cent of the franchise would not vote for a non-believing presidential candidate.

Many have used this to their advantage, most recently Sarah Palin who frequently used scripture to bolster a populist message that now manifests itself in the occasional Tweet or Facebook update. However, even the most ardent Palin devotee would find it difficult to argue that the book-hawking, reality TV star was in it for anything other than personal gain.

Bachmann, though, seems different, espousing a brand of politics built on an unerring and literal belief in biblical teaching that, until recently, would have discounted her from a serious tilt at the White House. It’s still early in the campaign, and her recent surge may well deflate. Then again, it may not.

The senator’s intellectual underpinnings are explored by Michelle Goldberg in her recent profile in The Daily Beast, summarised by “a biblical world view” that instructs her “entire perception of reality”. This is manifested most noticeably in her campaigns against abortion and gay marriage. Only last month, she argued that her challenge to legal abortion does not exclude cases of “rape, incest, or the life of the mother.” In regards to gay marriage, she has built a career rallying against her perceived homosexual threat, abridged to such choice statements as:

“Don’t misunderstand. I am not here bashing people who are homosexuals, who are lesbians, who are bisexual, who are transgender. We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders.”

Speaking on same sex marriage and the gay community:

“This is a very serious matter, because it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children.”

Aside from a few ramblings on chastity from Ann Widdecombe, religion has remained taboo in modern British political life, so much so that Tony Blair had to wait to leave office before he could declare himself a converted Catholic. In contrast, the influence of evangelicalism on the US political stage has been steadily growing since the Seventies, culminating in the election of George W. Bush, propelled to office twice on the support of the faithful.

The election of Barack Obama was a backwards step for their cause however, in the years since he took office the religious right has regained ground by forging an alliance with the equally active Tea Party movement. Fiscal conservatives merging with social conservatives under the banner of what some commentators are calling “Teavangicals”. As Ed Kilgore points out in a recent article for The New Republic:

“Christian Right elites, for their own peculiar reasons, have become enthusiastic participants in the drive to combat Big Government and its enablers in both parties. It’s no accident that one red-hot candidate for president, Michele Bachmann, and a much-discussed likely candidate, Rick Perry, each have one foot planted in the Christian Right and another in the Tea Party Movement.”

It should be noted that Mike Huckabee’s withdrawal from the race and Palin’s no-show has left Bachmann the most high profile evangelical candidate by default, while the anti-establishment fervour produced by the economic bailout will no doubt have bolstered the senator who flaunts her grass root connections every time she steps atop a stand, soap box or podium.

Still, that a candidate with beliefs so entrenched as to openly espouse sexual bigotry and the denial of abortion even in the case of rape has got so far should provide a stark reminder that however corrupt, deceitful and self-serving our own politicians appear to be, at least we don’t have to deal with the blind certainty of faith.

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Mitt, Michele and the pizza to go…

The race for the 2012 Republican nomination got underway last night as the big hitters of the GOP took part in a CCN-organised debate in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann provided the sparring, giving snapshot answers on questions ranging from the economy to abortion to Libya. As is the form in the US, actual debate proved rare, with the emphasis on providing pithy, coherent sentences and, more importantly, avoiding mistakes. Past campaigns have fallen foul of the faux pas. As such, each candidate took their place at the podium hostage to a potential knock-out blunder.

Fortunately, the broadcast ended without gaffe, slip-up or bungle. The winners and losers, however, were clear. Former Massachusetts governor and early frontrunner Mitt Romney consolidated his position with a presidential performance that had as much to do with his own assurance as it had with his opponents’ failure to land a glove. Going after the frontrunner offers the lesser-known candidates a chance to improve their profile. Instead, there was deference, most strikingly from Tim Pawlenty. The Minnesota Governor had attacked Romney on the Sunday talk shows over his “socialised” healthcare system in Massachusetts, drawing a parallel between that and the much-despised Obamacare. The chair offered Pawlenty the chance to confront Romney to his face. Romney glared, Pawlenty demurred. Similarly, Rick Santorum, a strong pro-life candidate, failed to take the Mormon candidate to task over his past dalliance with the pro-choice agenda. The former Pennsylvania senator remained a peripheral figure throughout much of the evening.

The unexpected beneficiary of the debate was Newt Gingrich. The portly former speaker looked like Elvis circa ‘77 and, on the back of a mass resignation by his campaign staff this weekend it appeared the thrice-married family values candidate was simply there to make up the numbers. On the contrary, he provided a performance of bluster and charisma, as well as offering a surprisingly nuanced argument when it came to immigration.

The one unsavoury moment for Gingritch came courtesy of Herman Cain. When asked to defend his recent assertion that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim to work in his administration, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO delivered a slice of verbal confusion that concluded with potential Muslim applicants being subjected to an interview to prove their allegiance to old Glory. Having watched Herman descend slowly into a hole, Gingritch duly followed with a rant that seemingly justified loyalty tests for US citizens. A whiff of Joe McCarthy, or at least that of his drink-sodden corpse, wafted through the auditorium. It was not a conversation that reached out to the moderate arm of the party, let alone any wavering Democrats. Cain, who in a previous debate hosted by Fox News had emerged the unlikely victor, looked anything but presidential. When asked for political analysis on Libya, he turned to his family for inspiration. “To paraphrase my grandmother… it’s a mess.” Not exactly Robert Fisk. The Georgia businessman did look assured on one question – whether he preferred “deep crust or thin?”

Ron Paul trotted out his usual isolationist rhetoric and even parodied himself with a few quips about The Federal Reserve, his default topic. He’s a game old goose, the congressman who enjoys huge popular support throughout the college campuses. His idealism, particularly in regards to the constitution, was in contrast with the more prosaic offerings from the other candidates. He is always enjoyable to watch and one of the most interesting players on the American political stage, but as always his brand of Libertarianism provided nothing more than a sideshow, and the Texas congressman will no doubt remain a fringe figure within US conservatism.

Another character on the periphery, Michele Bachmann, does appear to have come out of the debate with increased standing, offering up several forceful points that would have no doubt appealed to the grassroots and her Tea Party faithful. She’s got a chequered past, pronouncing views on evolution 100-years out of date, as well as helping to fan the “death panel” propaganda during the Obamacare debate. Her thoughts on homosexuality are a matter of record. However, there’s no denying that she has a large and growing fan-base, while the event offered her the chance to present a coherent, albeit hard-right message, while standing alongside some of the big players within the Republican establishment. Comparisons with Sarah Palin are inevitable, but the gulf between the two is clear. Bachmann isn’t Palin-light – they share many views – but the Minnesota congresswoman is far better prepared and far more articulate, delivering a consistent narrative, the type that Palin found it so hard to enunciate during the 2008 campaign. Whereas Palin took refuge in naked provincialism and borderline racism, Bachmann managed to deliver her brand of ultra-conservatism without looking completely insane. There seems little point in the former Governor of Alaska throwing her black Cole Haan boots into the ring for 2012 while Bachmann’s in the running, though as one CNN pundit astutely pointed out, “Palin may yet play kingmaker”.

Each candidate managed to throw a few punches Obama’s way particularly with regards to the economy and rising unemployment. However, if the President was watching the debate, he would have done so sitting comfortably on Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the frosty economic climate currently chilling the US, his lease on the White House looks secure for some years yet. The problem for the GOP remains winning Tea Party support alongside the more moderate Republicans. Could a Romney/Bachmann ticket unite the party’s increasingly disparate ranks? It seems like an unlikely marriage, but with US politics, just about anything is possible.

This first appeared in The IndependentThe original article can be found here.

The election descends into farce

Comedy has played an important role in the 2008 race for the white House. Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live has delighted the coasts as much as it has irritated those in between.

Indeed, the Republican running mate’s folksy-style has provided constant sustenance for the satirists who gorge on each “doggone it”, “gee-wizz” and “you-betcha”. Yet there is also something tragic about the way Palin has been used by her Republic paymasters. McCain, even now, portrays himself as a candidate determined to fight the good fight without resorting to the gutter politics of previous Republican campaigns. That hasn’t stopped Palin, no doubt under strict instruction, from making remarks that play to the more base instincts of the white working class.

Fortunately for Obama, the economic crisis has dominated the last few weeks of the campaign, rendering mostly redundant questions about race or religion. Instead the republicans have been forced to fight on the ailing economy, sparing the electorate from any Willie-Horton-style adverts that manipulate racial fear.

The economy has proved unfertile ground for McCain; in the early weeks of the financial crisis the Republican strategists searched desperately for a new stick with which to beat their rival. Enter Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the plumber, a native of Toledo who was propelled into the spotlight during the third presidential debate, an event in which Bill Ayers, the former US dissident turned teacher and, according to the Republicans, long-time associate of Obama, was expected to take centre stage.

Ayers certainly got a mention, as McCain, flagging in the polls, went on the attack.  But it was Wurzelbacher who stole the show, collecting 26 separate mentions.

“Spread the wealth,” was the message from the Illinois senator when he met Joe a few days before the debate. “It sound like socialism,” replied the plumber.

Socialism – a dirty world in US discourse, sullied by the Cold War, now reduced to a synonym for evil. The McCain strategists seized upon the exchange, boiling down the trails of the working man into an emblem, an easily identifiable motif that will play with the masses – Joe the plumber. The irony – using Soviet-style iconography to accuse their opponent of being a socialist – was no doubt lost to those shouting “traitor” and “kill him” at the Republican rallies.

Joe, now the embodiment of the small businessman desperate for lower taxes, became the poster boy for the McCain campaign, offering his insight into life under a repressive Obama regime on Talk radio and Fox News. Joe should be careful – if Obama does win next week, he might find himself first on the bus to the gulag.

Not that Joe will be alone; he’ll be accompanied by Tito the Builder. Yes – Tito the builder, as introduced by Palin at yesterday’s rally in Leesburg. Tito, it transpires, is Tito Munoz a Columbian-born contractor now living in Virginia. Wearing a yellow jacket and a hard hat, he is the new incarnation of the plight of the American working man. A plumber, a builder – how about a policeman, a cowboy, an American Indian?

Republican lapdog Fox News was quick to give Tito airtime as comedy descended into farce. “Tito the builder: Attacks on Joe the Plumber are unfair,” ran the news bar across the bottom of the screen. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Joe is seriously considering a run for Congress in 2010.

Less than a week before the electorate go to the polls, you simply couldn’t make it up.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

McCain’s last chance to change the course of history

Tomorrow the two presidential campaigns will intersect for the third and final debate at Hofstra University, New York with Barak Obama likely to be ahead anywhere from two to ten points in the polls. Yet US elections, especially in recent history, have been tight affairs and with no one quite sure what impact race or the economic crisis will have at the ballot box, the outcome for November 4th remains far from clear.

Should John McCain defy current thinking and become the 44th president of the United States it will be on a pledge of low taxation, strong military leadership and an end to excessive Government spending. A McCain election promise that hasn’t been as trumpeted is a pledge to introduce an equivalent of Prime Ministers Questions to US politics.

Judging by the first two presidential debates and the vice-presidential contest between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, it would be a welcome and worthwhile measure. Due to the vagaries of the election process, teams of negotiators from both sides set about boiling down the Live TV Debate format to what is essentially a shared 90 minute advert, each candidate given the minimal amount of time to speak on any particular subject.
This lessens the opportunity for candidates to stray off-message or, more ruinously, make an election-defining faux pas. The reasons for this are understandable; a face-to-face debate is an uncontrollable set-up, anathema to the political kingmakers behind the scenes.

Great debaters don’t necessarily make good leaders (William Hague is testament to that). However, a more open format might offer greater insight into the candidate’s character as well as their suitability to rule. It would also make the events far more compelling for the vast numbers that tune in. Unfortunately, direct confrontation is not part of the entertainment.

The first debate in Mississippi between Obama and McCain was staid, even sedate.  Both candidates remained stridently on-message; self-regulation avoided even the briefest sojourn from the script. When a clash did look imminent (courtesy of a question on foreign relations) the spark was quickly doused by a format that required candidates to move swiftly onto the next issue. This was debate in name only.

The subsequent vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden held in St Louis was an equally tepid offering, despite the unpredictable nature of both candidates. Both were seen as potential liabilities by their parent campaigns as the garrulous, gaff-prone Democrat took on the inexperienced and increasingly bewildered Republican.

More than 70 million tuned in expecting a car crash; the only question was who would spin off first. Yet both Palin and Biden exited 90-minutes later unscathed. Again, a format designed to limit opportunity for direct verbal sparring resulted in banality, neither candidate offering more than media-friendly sound bites and mangled syntax. Palin did offer up one bizarre moment of note suggesting that environmental problems were cyclical rather than anthropogenic; yet this may not have proved such a strange assertion to the less environmentally-conscious viewers in heartland USA.

Biden emphasised the need for fundamental change in economic and foreign policy. Palin was less specific, suggesting that troubled nation need only adopt small-town values to once again become Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill”. Nothing was exposed by either candidate. Most importantly for the respective campaigns both left the podium without mishap, leaving the circus to pack up and roll on to Nashville for the second debate between Obama and McCain.

The first presidential debate to be broadcast live on TV was in September 1960, when John F Kennedy stood opposite Richard Nixon in a New York studio. The event offered a portentous insight into the role TV was to play in future elections. The first debate focused on domestic issues, with Nixon offering far more substance than his young rival from Massachusetts. Indeed, the radio audience almost universally agreed that Nixon had won. Yet the 70million who watched the debate on TV (a record at the time) saw it very differently.

Nixon had refused to wear makeup for the cameras, leaving him looking haggard, sweating, ill and old. In contrast, Kennedy came across as young, vibrant and healthy. It provided an early political victory for style over substance. Kennedy went on to win the election (by as little as 100,000), with most commentators agreeing that the debate had played a decisive role.

During the early months of the McCain campaign, the Arizona senator had revelled in the small, “town hall-style” meetings, which allow for greater interaction with the audience. This was the format agreed to for the second debate, offering McCain an opportunity to claw back Obama’s advantage. However, Nashville’s “town hall” proved a fickle friend.

Parallels can be drawn with the Nixon/Kennedy debate. While Obama strode confidently about the platform or perched casually on his chair, his opponent tended to shuffle, appeared uncomfortable and, most damagingly, looked every one of his 72-years. Although unlikely to be decisive, this was not the big performance McCain supporters had expected.

In regards to substance, the event was nondescript, almost dull with neither offering any advance of what had previously been said. The highlight, a McCain finger pointed towards Obama, referring to him as “that one,” offered the Democrats scant ammunition, but it was nothing more than a manufactured controversy.

With four weeks to go, McCain is now clearly positioning himself as the underdog, with the debate in New York his last chance to convince the American electorate that he should be given the reigns of office. The Republicans should take heart from historical precedent. In October 2000 Al Gore led George Bush in the polls by 11 points; eight years later and Bush is still in the White House.

The question remains can a debate, particularly one in which verbal repartee is deliberately hamstrung, offer McCain any hope? Again, historical precedent suggests the Republican has a chance. In 1980, one week before the election, Jimmy Carter debated Ronald Reagan leading by five points in the polls. After the debate the numbers had switched and Reagan went on to win the election.

With less than a month to go and one debate left the race for the Whitehouse remains wide open.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.