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Here come the LibDems

It is a good day to be a Liberal Democrat. Now before loyal Shadow Government readers think that we’ve completely jumped the shark, let me clarify: we are not throwing our lot in with the McGoverns, Dukakises, and Boxers of the world. Rather, it is a good day for the Liberal Democrats here in the ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images
Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images
Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images

It is a good day to be a Liberal Democrat. Now before loyal Shadow Government readers think that we've completely jumped the shark, let me clarify: we are not throwing our lot in with the McGoverns, Dukakises, and Boxers of the world. Rather, it is a good day for the Liberal Democrats here in the U.K., a party generally unknown to Americans but which raised its profile in a big way with leader Nick Clegg's performance in last night's first-ever televised U.K. election debate.

The LibDems are a curious amalgam of a party with no precise analogy in the American context. The best I can come up with is a mix of Blue Dog Democrats, 1990s Perotistas, a twist of Ralph Nader, a dash of Ron Paul, hints of Dennis Kucinich and John Anderson, and a family tree going back to the Democrat-Republicans of the early 19th century. They are in general more economically centrist than Labour, but also to the left of Labour on other issues such as European integration and civil liberties. Though created just two decades ago in a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats, in at least some strains they trace their roots back to Gladstone.  

The rough consensus here in London today is that Clegg -- who is also known to Josh Keating's readers as "Christopher Hitchens's former intern" -- outperformed frontrunners Gordon Brown and David Cameron. (For an indispensable overview of coverage and commentary, check out ConservativeHome. And for those readers on coffee break who want to view a quick summary for themselves, check out this cheeky but, in a way, accurate 60-second version of the debate). Part of the story is that, as Stephan Shakespeare put it, Clegg won just by being there alongside the two main candidates. The visual effect was of three equally viable contenders. Clegg capitalized on this rhetorically by dismissing Brown and Cameron as "these two" and presenting his party as the untainted, fresh face of reform.

It is a good day to be a Liberal Democrat. Now before loyal Shadow Government readers think that we’ve completely jumped the shark, let me clarify: we are not throwing our lot in with the McGoverns, Dukakises, and Boxers of the world. Rather, it is a good day for the Liberal Democrats here in the U.K., a party generally unknown to Americans but which raised its profile in a big way with leader Nick Clegg’s performance in last night’s first-ever televised U.K. election debate.

The LibDems are a curious amalgam of a party with no precise analogy in the American context. The best I can come up with is a mix of Blue Dog Democrats, 1990s Perotistas, a twist of Ralph Nader, a dash of Ron Paul, hints of Dennis Kucinich and John Anderson, and a family tree going back to the Democrat-Republicans of the early 19th century. They are in general more economically centrist than Labour, but also to the left of Labour on other issues such as European integration and civil liberties. Though created just two decades ago in a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats, in at least some strains they trace their roots back to Gladstone.  

The rough consensus here in London today is that Clegg — who is also known to Josh Keating’s readers as "Christopher Hitchens’s former intern" — outperformed frontrunners Gordon Brown and David Cameron. (For an indispensable overview of coverage and commentary, check out ConservativeHome. And for those readers on coffee break who want to view a quick summary for themselves, check out this cheeky but, in a way, accurate 60-second version of the debate). Part of the story is that, as Stephan Shakespeare put it, Clegg won just by being there alongside the two main candidates. The visual effect was of three equally viable contenders. Clegg capitalized on this rhetorically by dismissing Brown and Cameron as "these two" and presenting his party as the untainted, fresh face of reform.

Yet while there are few if any plausible scenarios in which, even in a hung parliament, Clegg would actually become Prime Minister, his performance last night served notice that the LibDems will be a force in this election and might even be able to leverage some important Cabinet posts. Both Labour and the Conservatives have lost much of the initiative, and now need to reckon with LibDem arguments and candidates. Look for the Tories to even more vigorously dust off their slogan from the 1992 elections that "a vote for the LibDems is a vote for Labour." And look for David Cameron especially to target Clegg as much as Brown in the next debate on Thursday.

None of this is to say that either Cameron or Brown actually "lost" the debate last night. Both turned in respectable performances, and Cameron in particular had some strong moments, especially in his opening and closing statements. As a colleague of mine put it, the real winner is the British electorate, as this inaugural TV debate seems to have sparked renewed interest in the election and added a new dimension for the voters to evaluate. With two more debates to come (one on foreign policy, one on the economy), this story is just beginning.

What does all of this mean for the May 6 elections? Hard to say. Most polls continue to show a narrow but consistent Conservative lead. The big unknown is voter motivation and turnout. Overall voter cynicism and apathy still remains high, a result of the Parliamentary expenses scandal, economic malaise, and failure of any candidate to develop a truly compelling message. Some of Cameron’s advisors will counsel him to tack even more to the center and toss some artful "me toos" in Clegg’s direction. But as the sagacious Nick Wood argues, Cameron’s better shot at victory will be to lump Clegg and Brown together and draw a clear distinction for the Conservative message. Last week’s story of Tory opposition to Brown’s proposed National Health System tax hike was a good start, and helped elicit strong support from the business community.

One of the U.K.’s top pollsters told me this week that voter motivation and likely turnout levels remain unusually hard to decipher even at this juncture. Will Labour’s traditional bases in the industrial north be motivated to show up at the polls? Will Conservative voters, energized by a fresh slate of candidates and fed up with being out of power since 1997, stay hungry enough to win? The pollster said that not until the polling numbers of early next week come out — reflecting weekend campaigning as well as any enduring debate effect — will we see an accurate picture of the playing field.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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