There is a huge debate going on in Canada right now. A debate about debates. Political debates have long been a staple of election campaigns. There have certainly been memorable ones. The Kennedy-Nixon debate was almost certainly a turning point in a close presidential campaign – though for the most part it was not what the debaters said as how they looked. Kennedy looked cool, presidential; Nixon with his perpetual five o’clock shadow and flop sweat looked like a used car salesman – or perhaps the crook he later turned out to be.
Perhaps people can discern deep meaning from trivial things or perhaps Kennedy simply understood the importance of image in an age when most people were barely figuring it out. Or maybe luck played a role.
Some debates do have significant rhetorical moments: In the 1984 election campaign. John Turner was asked to defend the series of patronage appointments the outgoing Prime minister had demanded he make. Turner’s lame response was that he had no option. Mulroney shot back: You had an option, Mr. Turner, you could have said no! It was a turning point. The already faltering but still competitive Liberal campaign collapsed and the Conservatives went on to one of the historic majorities – one of the few gained with an actual majority of votes in a multi-party race.
It’s ironic that Brian Mulroney raised patronage to an art form – appointing party hacks to positions that previous administrations considered part of the regular public service. Debates can have turning points without revealing much about character.
Then there was the famous Clinton move where the candidate essentially stepped out of the debate format – ignored his opponents to communicate directly with individuals in the audience. His “I feel your pain” dialogue cemented him not only as President but as one of the most enduringly popular politicians in American history – a fact that still drives his opponents bananas.
Mostly, however, debates have degenerated into wooden talking heads speaking their pre-fabricated points while carefully avoiding any real discussion of the issues with other debaters. ‘Make no mistakes’ has taken over from scoring a knockout blow. When they do engage, it often seems to be red faced politicians yelling at each other or more likely trying to yell each other down.
Still telling moments can come – often when you least expect them as in the foolish and patronizing remark by Jim Prentice of Alberta when he told (now-Premier) Rachel Notley that math was hard. It solidified people’s views of him as arrogant and out of touch – not to mention sexist.
Yet, one wonders: do debates matter? Obviously they do – give how rigorously the political parties, especially the Conservatives are trying to manipulate the process. But it’s not because of huge audiences or even the likelihood of winning moments. It has to do of finding moments of advantage while avoiding the possibility of an unrecoverable error.
In any case, I’ll be watching – unless they have them in August.
But that’s ten minutes.