Well, of course there was no knockout! How can you expect a knockout when the rounds are 90 seconds long and the combatants aren't sure who to hit?
I think Canadians are spoiled. Ever since I came to care about Canadian election debates, every single media outlet has stood poised, waiting to pounce on that "knockout punch", that killer quip that devastates the opponent and turns the election decisively in one direction or another.
This practise dates back to the 1984 and the 1988 national debates, when Conservative leader Brian Mulroney and Liberal leader John Turner exchanged knockout punches. In 1984, Mulroney responded to a wishy-washy response from Turner saying he had no choice but to rubber-stamp outgoing PM Trudeau's patronage appointments with the famous line "You had a choice, sir. You had a choice." Mulroney won the election. During the Free Trade debate of 1988, Turner scored a winning punch of his own, and Mulroney only won the subsequent election by taking charge of his election campaign and implementing a bold rebuttal strategy.
Since then, though, there have been no knockout punches. Given how our leaders are so stagemanaged to avoid both Turner and Mulroney's flubs, given how the playing field has expanded from three leaders to five (now four), and given that the debates now all have to fit neatly within two hours, no knockout punches are possible. And yet the media keeps looking for it.
I guess political reporters are sports fogeys at heart.
So, I watched last night's leaders' debate. The night's winner: Gilles Duceppe. Yup. He was the individual, fighting against his lack of fluency in English, who best articulated his point of view, best responded to attacks, and scored the most points against his opponents. He came across as passionate and intelligent. I had to say that, if the man wasn't a separatist, I'd vote for him. Heck, if I lived in the man's riding, I still might vote for him. He played spoiler well, and his spoiler role wasn't limited to Martin or Harper; it extended even to Layton.
There was no great loser in this debate, and I think that suits Paul Martin fine. If Stephen Harper had won a decisive victory here, he would have walked away with the election, and that raised expectations for him. He had to show the nation that he wasn't frightening, but he didn't resolve the outstanding issues of his opinions on abortion and gay marriage. As a result, though Paul Martin only had an adequate night (and a flustered closing statement), he's still alive. Chantal Hebert said in the post-mortem that this has cost Harper his majority. It might even save Paul Martin's prime-ministership.
Frankly, though, I thought that all three remaining candidates had their strengths and weaknesses. Layton scored some good points on Martin and Harper, but sometimes pulled issues out of the air. For example, on a discussion about health care, Layton suddenly says (paraphrased) "and speaking about reducing health care costs, the NDP has this plan about cleaning up the environment". He succeeded in turning the subject of discussion over onto the NDP's environmental package (don't underestimate the strength of that), but to some voters I'm sure the reaction was "there goes the NDP again!"
The debate's one major flub, I thought, was Paul Martin quipping "Did your advisors tell you to talk all the time?" and then breaking down in laughter to Jack Layton's accusations on Star Wars. However you might agree or disagree with Layton's position on missile defence, Paul Martin's response was arrogant and condescending. Had Martin responded to Harper in the same fashion, we'd be looking at a Conservative majority.
While Harper didn't have any overt gaffes, there were times when you could tell that he was barely keeping his temper in check. Michael Wilson noticed this during the French debate and Harper almost lost control when Martin needled him on gay marriage and abortion. It's the only time in the debate that we started to hear Harper say such words as "despicable" and generally sound shrill. Fortunately for Harper, the moderator intervened. Had the exchange been allowed to go on a minute longer, we could well have had a Liberal majority. Because, of course, losing one's temper matters. If one can't keep one's cool during a simple election debate, how can one be objective and rational managing the more complicated affairs of state?
The fact that four national leaders were on stage prevented an in-depth argument over the issues. In order to give as much time to all the candidates, the leaders were not given a lot of time to ramble or argue. The organizers tried to get some more one-on-one time by arranging confrontations in a round-robin fashion, but not a lot of time were left for the exchanges, and the exchanges themselves varied wildly in intensity. You'd have Harper and Martin duking it out on national defence, and then the moderator would cut them off and ask Layton and Duceppe to go at it. Not only have these two been silent during Harper/Martin's heated exchange, Layton and Duceppe are quite close on defence policy. At one point, they seemed to agree to split the time between them to talk about their own policies at the expense of the Conservatives and the Liberals.
So, after watching the debates, my assessment of the election is... exactly the same as it was going into the debates. Harper didn't finish Martin off, and that may have cost him his majority. Both candidates remain statistically tied, and some hard fighting is going to have to take place between now and election day in order to decide the winner.
If indeed a winner can be decided.
I missed that bit, caught by Revolutionary Moderation, about Stephen Harper using the phrase "monetary union" to describe what some aspects of his policy on closer ties to the United States could look like. That would be rather close.
All of the other party leaders seem to have missed this point. Does more get made of this?