Does it matter when national debates are opened up to third-party contenders?
The news from Britain says "yes" — emphatically.
Former Nation intern Nick Clegg, achieved political superstar status this week when, with a stunning performance in the first nationally-televised debate of Britain’s 2010 election campaign, the leader of Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, trumped Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the ruling Labour Party and Conservative Party leader David Cameron.
Afforded an opportunity to be heard by a national audience as the campaign for the May 6 election hits its stride, Clegg dismissed the two traditional parties of government as incapable of delivering meaningful change at a time when British voters have grown frustrated with political scandals, economic instability and foreign policies that have aligned Britain with the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Clegg was the only one of the three candidates who, as a member of parliament, opposed going to war in Iraq and he has been a steady critic of assaults on civil liberties and the insider politics played by the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. At the same time, he has challenged the notion that Cameron has really changed the direction of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party.
Dismissing Brown and Cameron as the faces of “two old parties,” Clegg portrayed the election as “a fantastic opportunity to do things differently.”
“So don’t let anyone tell you the only choice is the same old politics,” he told voters. “We can do something new, something different.”
Britain liked what it heard.
There was no debate about the fact that Clegg, whose center-left party is far smaller than Labour and the Conservatives, won the debate. Nor was there any question that the inclusion of a credible third-party contender in a national debate had shifted the dynamic of the election campaign in radical ways.
The headlines said it all:
"Nick Clegg Seizes His Moment in the TV Spotlight," announced the liberal Guardian newspaper, which explained: "Lib Dem leader makes powerful pitch as he depicts his party as a significant change from Labour and the Conservatives."
"Nick Clegg’s Star Rises in Great Showdown," announced the the more right-leaning Telegraph newspaper.