My slant on the week
It’s the year of the political outsider (or so Nigel Farage had hoped). In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party didn’t just signal the grassroots’ endorsement of his socialist ideas; it also signalled a decisive rejection of the three professional politicians running against him. In the United States, Donald Trump’s unrelenting lead over his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination suggests that previous experience as a Governor or, worse, a Senator, has little advantage in this electoral cycle.
Will this outsider advantage continue indefinitely, or will the likes of Corbyn and Trump soon suffer for their lack of frontline political experience? Two TV moments this week capture the political apprenticeships of these two newcomers…
The ‘new’ PMQs: A bored room?
For over two decades, Jeremy Corbyn has served the constituents of Islington North in the House of Commons. By length of service alone, he could well be considered the ultimate political insider. His absence from the front benches during the last twenty-two years, however, has left him without any experience of a senior portfolio.
His debut at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday wasn’t just his debut against David Cameron. It was his debut at the dispatch box. So it should come as no surprise that Mr Corbyn would bring with him a different way of doing things.
The first encounter between the Prime Minister and new Leader of the Opposition was highly refreshing. David Cameron was asked a series of policy-related questions that matter to ordinary citizens, and he provided Parliament with calm, measured answers. He avoided cheap attacks against Mr Corbyn and even vowed to work together with him on tackling mental health issues. John Bercow must have been feeling pretty left out, having no need to step in and chide unruly MPs.
The ‘new’ way of doing PMQs brought out the best of Jeremy Corbyn as it gave him the opportunity to speak on behalf of ordinary citizens. The questions were serious and had to be taken seriously by the Prime Minister. Perhaps even more so, it brought out the best of David Cameron. He’s at his best when he is mature, pragmatic and optimistic. On Wednesday he was all three.
The difficulty with such a congenial exchange in a traditionally adversarial amphitheatre is that it isn’t what MPs are used to. They like point scoring, even if the public does not. They like to see their leader ‘winning’ at PMQs – and the other ‘losing’ – to boost their morale. Confronting this balancing act is already Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest challenge: how to square the needs and views of his own MPs against those of the 251,000 people who elected him leader.
For now he is an apprentice learning the ropes of frontbench leadership. Many of his ideas may be outdated and impractical for modern Britain. But his style in PMQs is a welcome development – if only his MPs give him the chance to persist with it.
The CNN Debate: Ultimately, the people do the hiring
Donald Trump likes to think he is in charge. Centre stage on CNN’s debate among Republican presidential nominees, he did everything he could to dominate.
Poll after poll has consistently placed Trump ahead of his rivals for weeks, as Trump not so modestly reminded the audience on Thursday night. His reputation as a successful businessman who speaks his mind and gets things done clearly resonates with a lot of frustrated Americans. But if Donald Trump is the answer, I doubt the question can be this: is this man really suited to be President?
Mr Trump’s political success in the polls to date is bizarre in many ways. For one thing, the tables have turned. On the TV show, it is usually the candidates who are full of bluster and turn out to have no real substance who crash and burn. They get found out. They might provide some entertainment and get the show decent ratings to begin with, but they tend to get weeded out by the final so that the winner has serious and proven business ability. The reality show needs entertainment, but it needs reality too.
In presidential politics, Mr Trump doesn’t get to do the hiring. It’s the American people. And it’s their job to sift through the candidates to find the best person to sit in the Oval Office. So far, Mr Trump is just like a candidate on The Apprentice who, when asked why they shouldn’t be fired, cannot provide evidence-based reasons, but instead just says how great they are. It wouldn’t wash in the business world, and it shouldn’t in the political world either.
One of the ways in which an American president can exert power is by making effective use of what Teddy Roosevelt called the ‘bully pulpit’. He or she may be restrained by Congress and the Supreme Court, but he or she can still use the authority of presidential office to influence public opinion. The ‘bully pulpit’, however, does not need to be occupied by a bully.
In Thursday’s debate, Senator Rand Paul was the first to challenge Mr Trump on his “visceral attacks” on people based on their appearance, and questioned his temperament to be an effective negotiator and commander-in-chief. Mr Trump’s response? “I never attacked him on his looks and, believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.” It took Carly Fiorina to leave him almost speechless later in the debate, but Mr Trump’s rivals need to seriously step up their efforts to expose his shortcomings to the American people. Donald Trump may be thriving from his outsider status, but he is not immune from the scrutiny of politics – or from the standards of common decency.