Two Debates

Last night we watched both debates with a stock in each. More than one Canadian joked to me about how boring the Canadian leaders’ debate would be, but it wasn’t that simple.

We watched Biden-Pallin in real time. Each performed more or less as expected. When Palin couldn’t answer a question–which was often–she dodged. But it was nothing out of the ordinary. I’d hoped for total self-destruction a la “I read all the newspapers,” but she was well-coached. Biden used a lot of numbers and repeated them, but I’m not sure what the cumulative effect was. I find these debates more spectacle anyway, since candidates routinely lie, distort the truth and talk around the subject.

Then we turned on the Canadian leaders’ English language debated when we’d recorded. I kid you not: for just a moment I felt a swell of something that might be called patriotism as I saw a very different spectacle. The candidates were directly challenging one another–sometimes it got silly–but the level of discussion was much higher and all of the parties were willing to go after one another where they disagreed. Of course, that was also the problem: Harper sat there representing a unified right against a completely fragmented “centre” and left. Dion was perfectly happy to red-bait the NDP (can “socialist” be an insult in a country with socialized medicine?). Layton was on fire and feeling his opportunity to become opposition leader, however slim that real opportunity is. The other thing that really took me is that after watching the Americans, Harper seems so utterly moderate. When the candidates were going after Harper on the economy, he pointed out that he didn’t utterly screw it up like the Bush administration did, and he’s actually right. It’s not that I support Harper’s policies; it’s that the center-of-gravity for political debate in this country is so noticeably to the left that a Canadian conservative looks very moderate when viewed immediately after an American one. Of course the Canadian debate is every bit as much political theater as the American debate, and Harper is trying to look moderate and reasonable so people don’t worry about the “hidden agenda,” but when staged in relief against Palin, there is a grain of truth to it.

I know every time I say this the Canadians [1] will say something like “but the conservatives here are really bad” and start listing all the things the Harper administration has done. And I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. It’s simply a difference of expectations: Canadians can legitimately expect more from their government, and that is why Harper seems so bad.

All that said, as the debate wore on, it got to be a little bit of a bummer. The theatrical part didn’t work for the opposition parties as well as for Harper. There’s Harper looking prime-ministerial with his crooked smile, and four other people on the attack and bickering among one another. The right and centre-right are united in Canada. For now, the left is divided, a particularly unfortunate state of affairs since combined the parties represent a clear majority of Canadians. I am still learning my lessons in Canadian civics, but if I were in charge, there would be a left-liberal coalition that could take on the conservatives. As someone said to me yesterday, at least the choice in the US is clear. Here, sometimes it’s not.

One last thought on the election for today: it appears that voter registration is taken more seriously than south of the border. We’ve gotten letters reminding us to register to vote (they don’t know that the residents of apartment 2 are foreigners) and even had some people coming to our door to make sure we were registered. I promised them “pour la prochaine élection.”


[1] I am hopeful that this will be the last Canadian federal election in which we cannot vote. Assuming this government stands for 12-18 months, we should be a dual citizens by the next election. That will raise all sorts of other momentous questions for this blog like, what to do instead of referring to Canadians as other people (as in locutions like “Canadians tell me”) and what the subtitle should be on my masthead.

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