Gordon Brown Scores an Upset

In Britain's first TV debate, the dour PM faced a tough fight against his flashier Conservative rival. Paul Begala, former senior strategist for Bill Clinton, on Cameron's shortcomings, the battle for Obama's mantle—and Brown's surprise win.

Debates are not fair fights. Expectations shape the result. By that standard Prime Minister Gordon Brown won a solid victory. Few British political observers thought he could stand next to the handsome young Conservative Party leader David Cameron and come away looking good. But he did. By exceeding expectations, Brown pulled off an upset.

Brown’s dour and dark visage actually cracked from time to time, allowing a wry smile to break through. He launched some stinging zingers at Cameron, and while they were clearly canned, he delivered them with an energy bordering on glee. Brown’s risk was that he appear as a stiff, stern, scowling scold; while there was some of that at the start, he genuinely seemed to be animated and downright human as the fight was joined. He actually looked like he was having fun–and for a man whose idea of a good time is pouring over economic data, that’s impressive.

Brown will never be confused with a warm and fuzzy teddy bear, but that wasn’t his challenge. He just had to show a little heart, a little soul and a little fire. I think he pulled it off.

Cameron, who was supposed to be Britain’s Barack Obama (and indeed is reportedly advised by President Obama’s former communications director, the estimable Anita Dunn) did not live up to his billing. Yes, like our president he is glib and handsome, but where Obama’s policy expertise is as deep and wide, Cameron relied effectively on anecdotes.

I wonder if he was over-coached. When I counseled Bill Clinton, our team would load his giant brain with statistics and stories and clever one-liners. But as he walked out on stage I would whisper in his ear, “You have the best instincts in the business. If something pops into your head, say it. Don’t filter yourself.” Mr. Cameron was too careful. He was playing not to lose. He didn’t seem to trust his instincts; didn’t want to say anything that hadn’t been focus-grouped.

Cameron’s risk was that he is seen as a rich phony. By debate’s end he still had not fully laid to rest the sense that he’s an empty suit–a $5,000 Huntsman Savile Row suit, to be sure, but an empty suit nonetheless.

Cameron needs to counterpunch more effectively. Brown hit him again and again with shots like when he “thanked” Lord Ashcroft (the Tory zillionaire tax-dodger) for paying for anti-Brown posters that at least showed Brown smiling. Cameron flinched. Brown liked the smell of blood. “You can’t airbrush your policies like you airbrush your posters,” he said to Cameron, hitting the pretty boy where it hurts. Cameron had no comeback.

More Daily Beast contributors on the U.K. debateWatch: 6 U.K. debate highlightsCameron had his moments, but they were in the form of warm, empathetic anecdotes rather than a tough right cross to Brown’s chin. In a discussion of the National Health Service, Cameron spoke with real emotion about the people who treated his son, whose heartbreaking death made headlines last year. He repeatedly tried to shed his aristocratic roots–he is a descendant of King William IV and was educated on the well-manicured playing fields of Eton—by telling stories from the campaign trail (“I was in Plymouth and spoke to a 40-year old black man….In Sheffield I visited a factory that makes armaments…I have a man in my constituency who has cancer….”) But I like a good fight, and Cameron debated like a man whose party is 20 points ahead, not three to five points up.

Cameron seemed more comfortable attacking Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, charging the reformist Clegg with leading a party that took £2.5 million from corrupt sources. But the first job of a party out of power is to convince voters to fire the incumbent. After 13 years of Labour, with Britain mired in recession, Cameron didn’t need to attack Clegg. He should have zeroed in on Brown and never let up.

Perhaps Cameron’s best moment was when he effectively portrayed himself as reasonable and calm—candidly admitting “Not everything Labour has done has been wrong”—before launching into a list of policies with which he disagreed. Brown had no idea how to respond. Attack mode doesn’t work as well when your opponent is playing rope-a-dope.

Mr. Cameron was too careful. He was playing not to lose. He didn’t seem to trust his instincts; didn’t want to say anything that hadn’t been focus-grouped.

In every mock debate we did for Bill Clinton in 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot stole the show. Perot was a larger-than-life figure, to be sure, but an energetic and opportunistic third-party candidate can usually steal the show. In that respect Nick Clegg tried, but didn’t do so consistently. He debated well, and scored when he interrupted a Brown-Cameron spat over immigration, saying, “This is part of what’s been going wrong for so long.” And during another fight over crime, he pointed at Brown and Cameron and said, “The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.” He should have had a line like that every time Brown and Cameron locked horns. He missed some opportunities, but he had a very strong debate. I wonder if he didn’t sense that he would benefit from Cameron’s less than stellar performance, so he picked his fights more carefully.

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For years America has been importing much of its pop culture from Britain. From the Beatles to The Office to Idol, there has been a trans-Atlantic conveyer belt. But today the flow was reversed. For the first time in its history, Great Britain held the sort of presidential-style debate we’ve been having since JFK and Nixon squared off. It was worth the wait.

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.