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In election campaigns these days, political parties must work hard to prevent their opponents from dominating the day’s news agenda. To fight the 1997 election campaign, the British Labour Party created a huge database which it used in rapid rebuttal, to counter Conservative claims or accusations before they can could take over the media.

But, working on the ancient principle that “thrice is he armed that gets his blow in first”, political parties in the US and the UK have also moved on to the offensive. No longer do they wait until an accusation has been made and then rebut it; instead they work out what the charge might be and issue a prebuttal before it appears.

The term was coined during the Clinton presidential campaign in 1996 and has since become a standard part of the political vocabulary.

President Clinton’s White House and campaign team have been drawing favorable reviews for their rapid response operation and penchant for picking off issues before Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole ... even gets his TelePrompTer warmed up. Vice President Gore calls it “prebuttal”.

Washington Post 26 May 1996

But committee chairman Peter Ainsworth today said he was furious at Mr Prescott’s “prebuttal” tactic because it had revealed the conclusions of the report 24 hours before it was published.

Evening Standard, 31 Jan 2005

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 15 Feb 1997; Last updated 19 Dec 2005