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05.06.10

The Liberal Democratic Flash in the Pan

Sure, his debate performance was impressive, but the results show good rhetoric doesn’t win elections. Paul Begala on why he hates third parties.

So much for Cleggmania.

It looks like Nick Clegg's Liberal Democratic Party actually suffered a net loss of five seats in Parliament.

Why?

After his performance in the first debate, some analysts were swooning and salivating over the Lib Dem leader. Savvier politicians saw it coming. I have been told that after a mock debate, Tory leader David Cameron turned to an aide and said, "So Nick wins the debate, doesn't he?" But both Cameron and Labour leader Gordon Brown knew that winning a debate does not equal winning an election. John Kerry trounced George W. Bush in all three presidential debates, yet Bush eked out a narrow victory over Kerry.

A few quick lessons:

First, even in a short campaign, don't mistake a flash in the pan for a fundamental shift.

Second, it sucks to be the party in power during a recession. Sure, Gordon Brown’s disastrous “bigot” comment on an open mic hurt, but Labour stands to lose nearly 100 seats because, as a wise man once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The Bush war in Iraq ruined Tony Blair; the Bush recession croaked Gordon Brown.

More Daily Beast writers weigh in on the U.K. electionThird, someone always ends up unhappy in a three-way. (Stop snickering.) This is the American in me, but I hate third parties. They’re like cockroaches in the kitchen: It’s not what they carry away that worries you; it’s what they fall into and foul up. In the States, our third parties affect the debate, then disappear. Ross Perot robbed Bill Clinton of the popular-vote majority he deserved, but he did move the Democrats to tackle the deficit. Clinton, who had initially promised to reduce the deficit by half, eliminated it altogether—and Perot’s party disappeared. I wonder if Brits, facing a hung Parliament, want Nick, the one-hit wonderboy, to do the same.

Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.