Obama for Prime Minister?

Halfway through Britain's first-ever televised election debates, the American political analogies are piling up

LONDON -- It was the foreign policy debate without a single question about Iraq -- but with six minutes devoted to the Pope.

Last night marked the second of three U.S.-style televised debates among Britain's political party leaders in the run-up to parliamentary elections on May 6. There has been excitement for the novelty of these debates -- the first of their kind ever held in the UK -- intermingling with apprehension at their format: They're governed by 76 potentially deadening rules, according to which audiences can't clap, cheer, boo, throw eggs, or even heckle (a remarkable departure from British political culture). So although it's only been a month since the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, sitting as coroner, declared the UK-U.S. "special relationship" moribund, Britain is facing its most American elections ever.

Yet it's not so much the Americanization of UK politics that's at issue -- that's a foregone conclusion, and the British media is largely passing over it. What's really up for grabs here are which American analogies and metaphors to use, or, say, what might prove this year's "You're no Jack Kennedy" moment. This is a country that not only knows its American history, but is now more likely to see U.S. comparisons than UK ones in evaluating Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg. It's also a country where The West Wing is currently the third-best seller among DVD box sets on Amazon.co.uk, while Ricky Gervais's The Office languishes at 37 on the list and Yes, Minister at 35.

During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the final time Brits were polled, 53 percent supported Obama to McCain's 11 percent -- and the country remain Obama-struck. In this election, then, the overriding imperative is to be seen as more of an Obama than the other candidates. But there's also the expectation to deliver quips and zingers of the kind we now associate with Reagan or Bentsen. In a tightening race, everything could hinge on one candidate being labelled a Dukakis. (I personally had even money on one of the contenders unleashing the phrase "You're no Charles Kennedy.")

And indeed, commentators here have largely argued over which U.S. signposts to apply to the performance of British candidates. In the Guardian, Marina Hyde found the standard of humor (particularly Brown's) wanting: "Against such fare, Ronald Reagan's genuinely funny gag about not wanting to exploit Walter Mondale's age takes on the comic heights of a George Carlin routine." Peter Bradshaw dipped a bucket into the American political film to assess Nick Clegg, the Susan Boyle no-hoper of Reality Election 2010, through prism of Robert Redford's character in The Candidate.  When Clegg did well in the first debate, not only did he get to be Obama for a day, it was his "Iowa moment."

While reporters write copy about Brown's jowly, Nixonian unattractiveness, the people fighting the election have hired over American political guns -- including, for Cameron, as much of Obama's campaign and communications staff as he could get: Anita Dunn and Bill Knapp being the two most prominent. (Labour managed to cadge Obama alumni Michael Sheehan and Joel Benenson.) If Obama had a chain letter, so too must Cameron. Had Clegg fallen under fire for abandoning Trident? Then watch him, last night, invoke Obama's magisterium -- twice: once for the need to move past Cold War threats, then for good measure on banking reform. Brown's riposte? To tar Clegg's Europhilia as "anti-American." (Bet five pounds on any of this three years ago, and you could be retiring happily to the British Virgin Islands.) The U.S. political tropes now extend even to the candidates' wives, each aiming to fill the heels of Michelle Obama, as the accomplished political spouse content to drop the odd "family life admission" concerning her husband's socks.

It all comes at a time when the world's political currency is, however briefly, again measured in dollars, and sterling reserves of political credit run low. British voters trust Obama (86 percent, to do the right thing in world affairs, compared with 16 percent for Bush in 2008), with a confidence untapped by the country's own political establishment. The United States' popularity in Britain shot up to 70 percent in the year following Obama's election, and the passage of health care reform seems to have further renewed his luster. The end of the special relationship may just have preceded our falling back in love.

If only it all could somehow have been accomplished without the Cameron Girls.