Friday, October 3, 2008

Thoughts on the Canadian Leaders' debates

Every time I watch one of these things I have to remind myself that for some voters, this event probably is the election campaign.  Our campaigns are short enough that if you're not a news or politics junkie, it's relatively easy to miss them.  (Well, most people would at least notice the signs, or some of the other advertising.)  The nationally televised debates are the one high profile event in the campaign.  If you're going to pay attention to anything related to the election, you're probably aware of them.

So the parties know they have a lot riding on them.  It may be their one chance to reach a potential swing voter.  And these days, it's all about the swing voter.  The leaders aren't speaking to their supporters.  Nor are they necessarily speaking to people who are familiar with the issues, the context, or the facts.  It's a tough job: you have to push your preferred message as much as possible while still presenting some semblance of answering the questions you've been asked.  And you have to react to what everyone else says.  All in real time.  I don't envy them.

In that sense, I think all of the leaders did a reasonable job in both debates.  They communicated some key elements of their platforms; they got in some jabs at each other; and they didn't screw up in any glaring ways.

Most observers seem to think that Stephane Dion had the most to gain (or lose) from last night's English language debate--particularly coming on the heels of what was perceived as a strong performance in the French debate.  Personally, I don't think he capitalized on the opportunity all that effectively.  He did a reasonably good job of appearing calm, confident, and (I suppose) prime-ministerial.  He did communicate pretty well in English--better than he often has in the past.  And he did a reasonably job of displaying empathy for voter's concerns.  But his defences against Mr. Harper's attacks on the accounting of the Green Shift financial numbers just didn't really seem entirely effective to me.  (Not that the attacks themselves were particularly subtle.  When Paiken specifically asked about this, the exchange can I think be accurately summarized as: It's a tax increase.  Not true!  Is so!  Is not!)  And with Jack Layton undermining his credibility with the occasional jab (the one about the 43 times the Liberals supported the Conservatives in the last Parliament seemed to land rather solidly) it just didn't seem like a performance that could really sway the vote in a large way.

Speaking of Jack Layton, he still reminds me of a used car salesman, but a little less so than in previous debates.  He wasn't quite as strident as he sometimes is.  But his sweater jokes weren't anywhere near as cutting as Elizabeth May's well-timed "Where is it?" in reference to the Conservative platform.  His attacks on Harper were generally the most aggressive, along with Gilles Duceppe.  That will work to his advantage, among some voters.  And he did a decent job of undermining M. Dion at the same time.  Ultimately I think he has to be reasonably satisfied with his performance.

M. Duceppe has little to gain or lose in the English debate, so he always gets to have a little more fun with it than the others.  But he just didn't seem to be quite on his game this year, compared to the last election.  He was more inclined to scrap with Harper than the others, and did force him to acknowledge a few things: that current Conservative manufacturing tax credits aren't refundable; that Québec really doesn't have its own UNESCO seat; and that the early justifications for the war on Iraq turn out to have been based largely on false information.  But he had help from Elizabeth May in eliciting the latter admission, and the UNESCO bit was really a non sequitur that didn't have a lot of impact.  And for much of the rest of the debate, it almost seemed like he was just going through the motions.  Still, his line about "I won't be PM, and neither will three of you" was a good one.

Elizabeth May definitely demonstrated that she deserved to be there.  She had reasonably policy-based answers to the questions and didn't hesitate to get into the cut and thrust, either.  Her line about the situation in Afghanistan being "too important to deal with in a history-free-zone" was a gem.  She was the only one who called Mr. Harper on the fact that he didn't really seem to have anything to say about the economy, despite his insistence that it be given extra time.  And, as I mentioned above, her "where is it?" was probably the best sucker punch of the whole debate.

Which brings me to Stephen Harper.  His style doesn't resonate very well with me, personally--he always seems to be arguing by assertion--but I think he did a decent job of seeming prime-ministerial.  He remained largely un-perturbed when the others attacked him, and he stuck to his message.  His response to most attacks seems to be to just say they aren't true, without offering any particular evidence; that seems weak to me.  Others must see it differently, since the talking heads on the various panels often seem to use it too, lately.  I think Mr. Harper's performance must have played well to his supporters, and he avoided any major gaffes.

Conclusion: Harper wins by not losing.  Dion loses by not winning.  Everyone else shores up their support, and maybe siphons some votes away from the Liberals.

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