US and UK voters left wondering, ‘Is this really the best we’ve got?’

“Are you two really the best we’ve got…?”  

In Wednesday’s U.K. prime ministerial, an audience questioner posed this directly to the leaders of the two major parties. The same might have been asked on Thursday night in the U.S.  

Wednesday’s U.K. debate came toward the end of the July 4 general election campaign. The ruling Conservatives are expected to lose in a landslide to the Labour party. Still, in viewer judgments, Rishi Sunak, the Conservative prime minister (PM), edged out slightly Labour’s Keir Starmer, who will likely be the next PM.  

It’s much earlier in the U.S. presidential campaign. As in the U.K., the incumbent party lags behind, though by a smaller margin. Most national and battleground state polls show a narrow lead by former President Donald Trump a little more than months out. Still, early calls on the first 2024 Trump/Biden debate seem to spell trouble for incumbent President Joe Biden. 

The debate performance of the sitting U.S. president exacerbated concerns about whether he’s too old to serve another term, resurrecting the ever-present question about whether he should step aside. At the same time, the early read of Politifact casts doubt on the truthfulness of the former president. 

How is it that these two are the best we’ve got?  

Think back to the Democratic nomination contest of 2020, the record-breaking number of candidates, the enthusiasm to beat Trump. Biden was a late entry into the race, and his performance was lackluster — until the South Carolina primary. Then COVID hit, and the field effectively folded. As for 2024, few dared to go against the incumbent, as is the norm.  

For the Republicans in 2016, eight years of Democratic rule and a term-limited Obama fired up what was also a record large field at that point. Few imagined a candidate like Trump, politically inexperienced with bombshell moral lapses documented in the Access Hollywood tape, could gain traction. But he did.  

And now, despite enthusiasm for Trump among his MAGA base and donors to both candidates who’ve shown their support by digging deep into their pockets, the American public is unimpressed. The share of “double haters” in the electorate — those with negative views of both major party candidates — is at an all-time high. It’s hard to imagine that the reported mid-May 2024 figure pegging them at 25 percent of the electorate won’t inch up even higher, after the Trump felony convictions and Biden’s shaky debate performance. 

When U.K. candidates Sunak and Starmer faced off on Wednesday, they did so as party leaders, having been previously selected by internal party processes dominated by elected Members of Parliament. Sunak’s ascendance as leader and PM in October 2022 followed a chaotic Conservative run at 10 Downing Street, after the party’s strong 2019 electoral showing. The scandal-ridden Boris Johnson was ousted by his party after three years as PM, and his successor, Liz Truss, served just 45 days, resigning under considerable pressure from her party. 

Keir Starmer looks to reverse 14 years of Conservative dominance. He was elected Opposition Leader in 2020, and under his leadership Labour has moved toward the ideological center. In Wednesday’s post-debate spin-room, Labour colleagues touted his skill in rebuilding the party’s organization. 

The U.K. debate, the second for these party leaders, was “spiky,” according to spin-room BBC journalist Clive Myrie. The candidates were unusually argumentative, even leveling personal attacks at one another. 

Sunak repeatedly pushed that “Keir Starmer is not being straight with you.” For his part, the Labour leader countered Sunak’s closing statement with “That’s a lie.” Admittedly, the debaters never ventured into Trump/Biden territory: Biden’s “ridiculous, insane and very stupid policies” or “You’re such a whiner.” 

At some level, viewers across the board were turned off by the two debates. A full 62 percent who watched the U.K. debate described it as “frustrating.” CNN’s flash text-message poll of viewers confirmed the overwhelming takeaway that Biden had a bad night, but neither candidate’s performance instilled much confidence in voters. Fifty-seven percent of debate watchers reported no real confidence in Biden’s ability to lead the country and 44 percent feel similarly about Trump. 

Mercifully, the U.K. campaign will be over soon, though with some dissatisfaction among the Conservative public and candidates as to the PM’s unexpected decision to call for elections at this time, rather than wait until the fall. Voters in the U.S. have months left to endure. As they do, it’s worth remembering their own role.  

For better or worse, the U.S. separated system and party procedures don’t place the sort of power in the hands of political party insiders as in the U.K. Yes, a Biden or Trump can tweak rules and procedures to their advantage in re-nomination efforts. Both did — Biden, for instance, strong-arming the 2024 nomination calendar to give South Carolina a stronger voice. Trump deftly pulled strings in the delegate selection processes. Those donating money and making endorsements, along with the media, also factor into the equation. 

It’s important to remember that voters have agency and elections have consequences, and not just in the way Barack Obama has used the phrase. Who wins and the power they wield may well translate into policy change. Who wins — as well as the terms of the current campaign — will also affect the next election.  

The age math in 2020 was as straightforward as it is now; if only those Democratic voters could have extracted a pledge from Biden to be a one-term president. Or if Trump supporters had paid attention to their candidate’s long history of seeing elections and processes as rigged, when he didn’t like the outcome.  

Hindsight may be 20/20 vision, but questions about whether these two are the best we’ve got should have been addressed a long time ago. If there’s any consolation, whoever wins in November can’t run again. 

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