Dr. Dawg

Ok, the debate

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Terabytes have already been devoted to last night’s leaders’ debate, so why not a few bytes of my own?

A few general observations first.

Debates of this sort are about presentation and effect—more like wrestling than boxing. A debate modelled on the latter would be more fun to watch, but no campaign manager is going to risk having his boy dropping to the mat. Cuts, blood and KOs are for other venues. This is strictly WCW stuff, minus the bodacious entourages.

Nor does much of the substance matter: people remember body language, confidence, fluency and those delicious zingers.

We don’t come to these things cold, either. Not only do we have our own champeen to root for, we also have varying expectations of the players. A sitting PM simply has to look prime ministerial. No jabs and dirty moves: he just needs to stay calm and avoid falling.

We don’t expect much out of Gilles Duceppe in the English debate—what audience does he have, inside or outside Quebec? Anglos in that province are solidly federalist. But—kudos—he made the strongest pro-immigrant pitch of the evening.

We assume that Jack Layton will articulate the views of his party, and maybe throw a few surprise moves. (He did.) And this was first-timer Michael Ignatieff’s chance to shine in the ring. (He didn’t.)

Finally, the pundits weigh in to tell us what we’ve seen and heard, and what to think about it. I’ll get to them. But let me give readers my own more objective view first. :)

I’ve seen Jack Layton do poorly in debate in the past—self-conscious, even stiff. But not last night: he was relaxed, centred, comfortable in his skin, and well-informed. He easily won the debate with his demeanour, his speaking style and his evident command of the issues.

Stephen Harper, though, came a close second. He was unflappable. In fact he looked slightly tranked, but he is a man of powerful self-discipline. The softening effect of the glasses certainly played to his advantage as well: those cold blue eyes of his are not an asset. While he might have seemed condescending to many as he delivered his talking-points to the other party leaders, others would see a man of considerable gravitas, his calm making a striking contrast with the overly-histrionic performances of Duceppe and Ignatieff.

Indeed, what struck me most about Ignatieff was his delivery. It’s not that he lacked coherence—he didn’t. He knew his stuff, and how to string it together. But he was just trying too hard. His handlers obviously told him to show emotion, and for a man who usually doesn’t show very much of that, it seemed to be a bit of a chore. The contrast between his loud faux-passionate voice and Harper’s calm, level tones was excruciating to hear.

His shot about Harper being a control-freak who shuts opposition down was a good one, perhaps his best point of the evening, but it lost his force after he kept repeating it.

The shot heard round the country? Jack Layton, momentarily paralyzing Ignatieff by asking why that proponent of Parliamentary democracy was absent from the House of Commons for 70% of the votes in 2010.


That’s what remains of the debate in my mind this morning. I didn’t take notes. So I had to turn to the punditocracy to remind me. Some of them appeared to have watched another debate entirely, where Harper won handily. (Note the adroit use of the word “coalition” at the link.)

Too many of the current commentators, alas, are Harper cheerleaders: Adam Radwanski predictably claimed a Harper victory (and took a swipe at Jack Layton for what was actually a pretty good shot about crooks in the Senate), and Maclean’s national editor Andrew Coyne is parti pris as well (others have noticed this too).* Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, however, were unavailable for comment.

The “liberal media.” Uh-huh.

Then we have the bottom of the end: Brian Lilley, writing for Harper’s Sun™. Go and read his scurrility for yourselves. Incidentally, he quotes Mao incorrectly, but there you go. Like leaders’ debates, Sun writing isn’t about accuracy.

Compared to that noxious effluvium, John Ibbitson’s observations this morning weren’t half bad.

No one may have had a better night than Jack Layton, as the NDP Leader cheerily skewered both of the major party leaders, mixing folksy charm with sharp attacks.

In a clever application of an old trick, he accused Mr. Harper of having changed since he came to Ottawa. The Conservative Leader was once a cheerful warrior determined to “stand up for the little guy,” Mr. Layton said. But he maintained Mr. Harper had sold out to the big corporations.

“You’ve become what you used to oppose,” he said to Mr. Harper. “You’ve changed in some way.”

Ibbitson notes the differing camera ploys of the debaters as well:

One tactic seemed emblematic of the debate. Mr. Ignatieff rarely looked at the camera, speaking instead to one party leader or another. Mr. Harper ignored the others and spoke directly to the camera in a preternaturally calm demeanour.

Only Mr. Layton was smoothly able to pivot from camera to opponent and back again, displaying the formidable debating skills he has honed in his years as a politician.

If some soft NDP voters were thinking of abandoning the NDP to support the Liberals, Mr. Layton may have brought them back home.

And finally, Dan Gardner takes note of the strongest point Ignatieff made: using the word “bickering” to describe the Parliamentary process, as Harper did, reveals a lot about his view of democracy. Gardner’s column is well worth the read.

The return match will be on this evening. Just watch Gilles Duceppe go, followed closely by Jack Layton.

* Note: Coyne has blocked me from following him on Twitter for daring to suggest the obvious. —DD

ADDENDUM: After being chided by Chris Selley b/c, Robert McLelland on Twitter and a reader here, I would have to concede that “cheerleader” is too strong a term for Messrs. Radwanski and Coyne. Neither of them descends to the level, for example, of Brian Lilley and the National Post Harperbots. But, as they say at Wikipedia, the neutrality of their articles is disputed—at least by me.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 13, 2011 11:50 AM.

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