And now we spin.
I’m not going to call a winner on this one, because it’s very difficult for someone who eats and breathes politics to predict how people tuning in for the first time will absorb what they saw. Often it comes down to body language, or one toss away comment on an issue we all assume is inconsequential but just happens to connect to the person watching.
I do think this debate was a lot more exciting for political junkies than for most voters – at one point there was a 10 minute stretch when the leaders argued over the 2004 coalition letter, proportional representation, and the mechanism by which the House of Commons gives confidence to the Prime Minister. I’d wager these issues aren’t keeping many Canadians up at night. On this count, I think all four leaders got too caught up in Ottawa bubble squabbles and failed to connect with viewers as much as they could have.
So rather than score the debate, I’ll present reasons why each of the leaders won and lost.
Why Stephen Harper won: Harper takes it on style and substance. He looked directly at the camera, making a connection with viewers. He kept his cool. He talked about the need for a stable government during the economic recovery.
Even though we all expected him to go on a coalition rampage, he stayed above the fray and stayed positive. After all, why attack your opponents when you can have your attack ads do it for you? At one point, he actually had the gall to tell the Just Visiting guy that “I don’t think these personal attacks back and forth are very productive“.
Beyond all that, Harper won by not losing. The opposition needed a “game changer”, “a knock out blow”, or another sports analogy (a “golden snitch”?) to throw him off his game. They didn’t get that.
Why Stephen Harper lost: It’s all very good to say Harper won by not losing, but any way you add up the points, Harper lost. He was on the defensive the entire night, and the issues discussed were not ones he wants this election to be about – contempt, G20 waste, corporate tax cuts, fighter jets. To use yet another analogy, you can’t win when you’re in your own zone the whole game.
Why Michael Ignatieff won: I suspect the pundits will not be as kind to Ignatieff as the public. After all, the pundits formed their expectations of Ignatieff around what they’ve seen from him on the campaign trail where he has, by all accounts, performed well. The public, however, have built their expectations on what they’ve seen in attack ads. Short of announcing the Liberal’s National Puppy Genocide program (paid for by a new tax!), Ignatieff was going to look better than the Conservative caricature.
Ignatieff sounded forceful and confident in his attacks on Harper. He showed passion, pounding the podium when talking about Canadian troops. He highlighted Harper’s democratic abuses, then drew out issues that differentiated him from the Prime Minister – corporate tax cuts, fighter jets and prisons on one side…and family friendly Liberal policies on the other.
Why Michael Ignatieff lost: Sure, he attacked. He looked like a great opposition leader. But he attacked hardest on Harper’s contempt for Parliament, something few voters care a great deal about. And if they do, they assume the Liberals wouldn’t be any different.
Moreover, he did nothing to present a clear Liberal alternative – there was no reason given to voters on why they should vote Liberal. Ignatieff did do a good job on the Learning Passport – he identified a need and explained the Liberal alternative. Twice. But there were only scant mentions of the other Family Pack items, and nothing to convince voters he had a plan and was ready to govern.
Why Jack Layton won: These debates aren’t about what leaders say, they’re about how they sound. And Layton, as usual, struck the right tone. He was, by far, the least scripted of the leaders. He sounded genuine. He cracked jokes and looked like he was having a good time. He talked to viewers like they were real people.
Most importantly, he talked about the issues that actual matter. He identified solutions and offered NDP policies that addressed them.
Why Layton lost: Layton started strong, but faded down the stretch. His “man you’ve changed” routine against Harper was tiresome, and he sounded like your grandpa trying to be cool when he talked about “bling” and “#hashtagfail”. He did nothing to differentiate himself from Ignatieff this debate and was on the defensive during their one-on-one over Afghanistan.
Duceppe: It’s impossible to spin a win or loss for Duceppe so I’ll just give my synopsis. As usual, he had some good zingers. But much like 2008, he looked like someone who was angry with no real reason to be angry. In 2004 and 2006 when he had AdScam to fuel his indignation, but Duceppe didn’t have an issue to punch on. Quite honestly, it would have been a better debate had he not been invited.