Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Perils of the Welcome Change in the 2015 Election Debates

Good news: the Conservative Party has refused to debate the other opposition leaders before the traditional news broadcasters, and have suggested a dramatically different – and very welcome – change of format.

But this decision by Harper's election brains trust might prove to be the first major blunder in their campaign. 

Unlike the kneejerk reactions from some pundits that this change plays to Harper's strengths, and kneecaps Justin Trudau, the odds are that Harper is the one who will lose in the new style debates.

Stephen Maher in the National Post describes the surprise change in the debate rules this way:
The Tories surprised everybody Tuesday morning when they announced that instead of participating in debates traditionally organized by a consortium of broadcasters, they plan to do an English debate hosted by Maclean’s in August — aired on CityTV, Omni and CPAC — and a French debate hosted by Quebec’s TVA.

The NDP has also accepted those invitations. The Greens will participate in the Maclean’s debate but have not been invited to TVA.The Liberals complained that the Tories rejected the consortium bid, but voters are unlikely to be swayed, in part because of consortium failings.

The consortium held a secret all-party meeting at CBC headquarters in Toronto last month, laying out its secret plan for four debates, two in English, two in French, to be moderated by its stars: Global’s Dawna Friesen, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge.  In previous campaigns, the parties meekly agreed to the consortium’s secret plans. On Tuesday, Conservative campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke, until recently the boss of the (suddenly defunct) Sun News Network, made it clear that this time the Conservatives will not go along with the consortium, denouncing it as a “cabal.”

Mahler thinks he knows the reason for the proposed changes:

Harper is seeking every possible advantage in the election that will make or break his career, just as he was when he rewrote the Elections Act.

Jame Watt, in the Globe & Mail, best describes the proposed change, in my view:

Mr. Harper is offering to make live debates much more dramatic and interesting. No matter their preference, voters should welcome the opportunity to be engaged by the participants themselves, rather than controlled by the outmoded rules and referees of the past.

Watt goes on to describe why he thinks the changes give Harper the edge:
For too long now, election debates have been run by a moderator juggling a series of arcane rules that often seemed designed to ensure any real exchanges ended before they got interesting. Monologues were the order of the day, interspersed with bouts of partisan heckling by opponents desperate to score points with viewers.
Now, that game is changing thanks to the Tory’s demand that debates be precisely that. And in doing so, they have also found a way to exploit the format to its greatest advantage and spicing up the drudgery of a lengthy, live event. 

The new Tory-endorsed debate format – with one each in both official languages, and the possibility of up to three more – will feature spontaneous interchanges and end the time-controlled, subject-specific discussions that have prevailed. This overhaul gives much more control to the incumbent. Stephen Harper is the most experienced of the leaders in a live debate format so he can sit back, choose his words carefully and watch his rivals shout and grimace while he appears as the controlled elder statesmen.

My view

I agree that the debates as held in the past have been boring events, without any true exchanges between the debaters.

They seem to have been designed to suck any spontaneity out of the exercise, and to avoid any real clash of opinions; the decorum seems to have weighed the most, rather than the invigorating discussion of ideas.

Truth be told, they have been crushingly boring, with the moderators acting like traffic cops: Move along now, nothing to see here. Their real role should have been to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire, but this seldom happened.

Maher thinks the choice of Paul Wells as moderator favours Harper:

Harper might be glad that Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells, who has written two (excellent) books about him, will moderate, rather than network stars that he distrusts. And he might be glad that the first debate will be in August, before the opposition release their platforms.

Pitfalls in previous debates:

Presidential debates in the USA have often surprised viewers with clangers dropped by contenders.

President Ford sounded like an ignoramus in 1975 by claiming that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."

In 1980 Reagan framed the ballot box question beautifully in his debate against President Carter, with this little elevator speech:

"Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?”

And he floored Carter with his little chuckle in response to a Carter point, and his devastating put down: "There you go again."

In the Republican presidential debate in 2011, Texas governor Rick Perry highlighted the main fear of many politicians: that they would fumble badly by forgetting a key fact, and look like an idiot who lacks the gravitas to become president. He forget the third of three points he was going to make:

He said that as president he'd eliminate three government agencies, and when he attempted to list them, he could only remember two: Commerce and Education. He spent the next 53 seconds uncomfortably trying to come up with the third. Finally, he gave up and uttered, "Sorry. Oops." Several minutes later he remembered the third, "By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago."

Hints for debaters:

There’s no shortage of these. Klain in the WSJ blog has several useful ones.

I like this one especially, given Harper’s belief that he is the best debater in the country:

Prepare to attack, but also to counterattack, by preparing zippy responses to your opponent’s favorite lines.

And if Mulcair or Trudeau follow this advice, they will seem more open than Harper, who seldom answers questions this way:

Begin answers with “no” or “yes,” and then explain further. Voters don’t like it when candidates appear to be evading the question.

Even David Gergen gets into the act with his 20 tips for preparing for a debate

I like his points 3, 4 and 5:

3. Settle upon 3 or 4 key points to drive home:
·       About your qualifications vs. your opponent’s
·       About the emotions you wish to arouse
·       About your philosophy vs. opponent’s
·       About your policy position vs. opponent’s

4. Always remember that your main audience is on the other side of the television camera, not in the studio. Even as you engage with the moderator and your opponent, make sure you are always reaching your main audience.

5. Preparation and sound bites:

The sound bite will be repeated endlessly and will shape memories long after the debate is over.

So, gather thee bites whilst thou can!

Practice, practice, practice, and have some Zingers:

Preparation is key. In 2000, George Bush had 10 or more full mock debate sessions, mostly at his Texas ranch, while preparing for his debates with Al Gore. Given his relative lack of debating experience, Justin Trudeau would be an idiot if he did not have at least 10 mock debate sessions before entering the ring with the more seasoned Harper and Mulcair. And, as that article says, the preparation of sharp zingers is a must.

The Achilles heel in Harper’s assumptions:

It is clear that the Tories are frustrated by their relative inability to lay a glove on Trudeau, despite all their talking points and attack ads and buffoonery in Parliament. 

This change in debate style is designed to give Harper an edge, because, I believe, the Harper strategy team think that in a one-on-one contest, Harper will be the top dog.

In Parliament, Harper has seemed, to Tories, to come out on top most of the time.

But this is the fatal weakness in the Tory strategy of debate. Trudeau has been under estimated in the past, and this is another case of that happening.
The Harper History

Harper enters a proper debate with the huge disadvantage that he has been protected in a bubble for years, both in and out of Parliament. 

He has seldom been questioned and seldom answered questions. 

He has carefully removed himself from the hurly burly of public debate, and even in Parliament, has relied on his ability to deflect questions by not answering serious ones and immediately pivoting to attach the opposition. All this to the accompaniment of the trained-seal-like roars of approval from his side of the house.

A proper debate format will remove that from Harper. 

The bubble will be burst, and the tenacious Mulcair will be on him, like a terrier with a rat in its grip. Don’t expect any Queensbury Rules from Mulcair in the debate Harper is proposing!

Worse still, Harper comes to this fight like a champion heavyweight boxer, who has won the championship, and since then only fought against carefully selected opponents, of lesser caliber.

That won’t work in the new debate style. 

Harper will be on unfamiliar ground, and will be the one most likely to lose it. 

His off-putting attitude during Question Period in Parliament will come across as totally negative in a real debate. Remember the older Bush’s checking his watch because he seemed bored, and how this hurt him? And Al Gores repeated sighs of exasperation while debating the younger Bush? 

Harper’s unwillingness to give honest and direct answers to inconvenient questions and points, will hurt him in this new style of debate. He runs the risk of coming across as arrogant, dismissive, evasive and unprepared.

And trying to change that during any mock debates he undertakes will be difficult. He will be off his stride: what has worked so well during his tightly-scripted, controlled bubble of a prime ministership could make him sink like a stone in a real debate.

That’s what I expect to happen during these debates: an ugly implosion of the Prime Minister, visible to millions of viewers.

Oh, and picked up and repeated in attack ads during the rest of the year.

After all, the Conservative / Harper record during the past decade has dozens and dozens of examples of juicy items for a real debate!

Like these, for example:








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