Friday, October 3, 2008

Politics: Debates as Entertainment

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The biggest question both before and after the Leadership Debates in Canada the past two nights has been whether watching last night's English-language debate or the vice-presidential debate in the United States was more worthwhile. Just about every Canadian I've spoken with either planned to spend or actually spent more time watching the US debate, and former premiers speaking this morning on CBC's The Current admitted the same. Even discounting the importance of the Canadian election--which I do not--this seems bizarre behavior, as historically no vice-presidential debate has ever made an impact on the result of a US presidential race. It only makes sense because the debates now are regarded as strictly entertainment.

I have resisted this view because I still think that a chance to appear before a national television audience, whether in a country of 30 million or 300 million, presents a chance to introduce the candidates' personalities and positions to the people and hence represents a function of democracy. At least in Canada, there is still some of this feeling in the electorate, as demonstrated by the outcry when Elizabeth May of the Green Party was originally excluded from the debate.

Granted, I had fairly complete knowledge about each party going into the Canadian Leadership debate, but it soon became clear to me while watching the show that the average voter wasn't learning much. Someone not paying much attention to the campaign might have learned a bit of the contrast between the Conservatives and the other four parties, but they weren't helped much in choosing between the other parties if they decided they weren't going to vote Conservative. The only truly differentiating exchanges occurred between St├ęphane Dion and Jack Layton and neither came out looking high-brow from that.

Instead, I found myself just viewing the event as entertainment--how were they going to gang up on Harper next, and how would he respond? At first, I thought it was odd that Harper was remaining so calm for a second straight day, but then I realized that he understood the game. The other candidates weren't stealing his voters with the pile-ons, they were only competing for entertainment value--and Harper doesn't need to be entertaining to win the election. Duceppe always provides entertainment in English-language debates, and he would be unlikely to win many votes with it even if he had candidates running outside of Quebec.

The real reason that many Canadians wanted to watch the US vice-presidential debates wasn't that the US election was viewed as more important, but that they viewed that debate as potentially more entertaining. Canadians have heard from Duceppe, Layton, Harper, and even Dion and May before. While they have heard Joe Biden before, they also knew that he has been prone to mis-statement and had come up with good one-liners in the past. Sarah Palin was a complete unknown, and with her poor performance in the Couric interview some hoped to see a meltdown, while others hoped to see the fire and confidence from her nomination speech.

In the end, neither debate was terribly entertaining. Neither Biden nor Palin made any consequential mis-statements, and neither had any knock-out blows. Palin may have had more confidence than coherence, as a CNN commenter put it, but neither did she do any damage to the Republican ticket (except maybe in a bizarre answer about education). Arguably, the Canadian debate was a bit more entertaining, with some of the pile-ups of four-on-one against Harper and such exchanges as Duceppe's insistence on hearing the word "reimbursable" from Harper. Duceppe had the line of both debates when he stated that not only would he not be Prime Minister, but neither would three of the other people at the table.

The ultimate irony of the inclusion of Elizabeth May into the leadership debates is that while many of us wanted her there for the sake of democracy, she may have provided the most entertainment. While she definitely demonstrated that she could hold her own at the table, spouting out facts and figures to back her position on each topic discussed--not just the environment--and speaking as eloquently as her competitors, in the process of serving as a "fact checker" on Harper, she was providing entertainment as much as content. It became a fun game to watch how May would correct Harper again.

In the final analysis, it is not healthy to view debates as entertainment. The final question during the Leadership debate amounted to "how can we trust any politician?" May's answer was dead-on, in my opinion: "You have to demand more, and let them know that you demand more." Regardless of your ideological stripes, figuring out how to demand more, and how to communicate it would be a good exercise. I daresay it should begin by expecting more than entertainment out of each debate.

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