Canadian Leaders Debate, round two

The four-way leaders’ debate in French has just concluded.

Here are some observations on the debates and the election to this point.

It was good of Radio Canada and CBC to have a live stream on the web with English translation, and somewhat amusing to hear different voices representing each person. (NDP Leader Jack Layton’s translator had an Irish accent, for example.)

For Tuesday’s English language debate, moderator Steve Paikin generally took a ‘hands off’ approach. Tonight the co-hosts Anne-Marie Dussault and Paul Larocque interjected with many questions, probably forcing more specifics out of the speakers. Other pre-selected questions were poised by ordinary citizens in video clips. Once again, I think the format was pretty good, overall.

(The full video should be available here.)

Needing an ability to speak and debate in both English and French can pose a challenge to any aspiring Prime Minister.  I admire the effort. How did they do? Reasonably well, according to those better able able to pass judgment than I.

Predictably, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe seemed to dominate. But (by and large) this does not signify on the national arena. Commentators on the live blog I followed largely felt Duceppe ‘won’ (so to speak) with Layton also showing well. These same commentators felt Prime Minister Stephen Harper hung on somewhat adequately and Ignatieff continues to miss opportunities to make his case more strongly. (Ignatieff supporters probably think I am not giving him enough credit. Could be. I just don’t think what he is doing has been sufficient to stunt Harper’s lead.)

Polls can be tiresome and over-used, but if anyone cares, here’s a quick poll on how each leader did on Wednesday.

Harper didn’t have to withstand the same level of three-against-one onslaughts Wednesday night. The Bloc, NDP and Liberals are all keen to pick supporters away from the other alternative to the Conservatives in Quebec, so at times Harper could almost sit back and let them tear chunks out of each other to his advantage.

There was a question in the second half about the distasteful injection of American-style values into the election, with a lot of back and forth about how the U.S. is a great friend and neighbor but Canadians prefer Canadian values.

Since a U.S./Canada comparison came up, I’d like to make one of my own. For some reason Ignatieff’s candidacy reminds me a lot of John Kerry’s presidential run. Which does not bode well for Ignatieff.

Both men had to battle an image of elitism, a sense they come from some intellectual hot-house that disqualifies them from representing ordinary citizens. Both men, in my opinion, committed the huge error of allowing their opponent to define them first. And then running a catch-up campaign saying A) “I am not what they say” (or “Well, I am. But it’s not that bad”) and  B) “A vote for me is better than that other guy, whom all right-thinking voters dislike”.

Human nature being what it is, voters want to vote for someone they like and believe in.

I moved to Canada in 1999 and heard a lot from Canadians who could not believe my home country elected George Bush. Twice! It was a real head scratcher for most up here.

Like him or not, Bush was comfortable in his skin. What you saw was what you got. Being genuine strengthens a candidate in many crucial ways.

Many (most?) Canadians will agree that Stephen Harper can seem boring. Or cold. Some would add controlling and manipulative to that list. Lately he’s had to fend off repeated accusations that he is also flexible with facts. But most would also agree Harper has demonstrated discipline, a passable degree of subject mastery and more strategic ability than his opponents. What you see is what you get.

It remains to be seen if Harper can attain the majority he is seeking. But incumbency is a powerful advantage and he’s doing little to lose this election thus far – considering the alternatives often don’t seem quite ready for prime time.

One more thing though: Canada’s current minority/majority quandary just won’t go away. Consider this: if Harper gambles big on this election and only comes back with yet another minority, many predict he will have to stand down as party leader (for being the guy who just can’t seal the deal with voters). He’d end up winning, only to lose.

OR the three opposition parties could still form an alternative coalition (such an arrangement is legal, even if Harper calls it illegitimate and Ignatieff says he won’t go there.) Or the opposition could pass another no-confidence vote, leading to yet another stalemate-election.

Voters are tired of this log jam. They might just throw up their hands and give the guy his majority just to make the whole mess go away for a few years, at last. Many suspect Harper orchestrated this election – counting on that ‘please, just make it stop’ outcome.

Because what’s a voter to do, if he or she dislikes both front runners and the other two parties can’t form a government together either?

If you like Ignatieff, Harper, Layton or Duceppe, it’s an easy choice.  If not, it’s a mess.

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