Opinion

Please Advise! Who Won the TV Debate? And Does It Matter?

Tyee’s spin doctor on the squabbles, whines, and the ‘knockout blows’ that, well, Donald Trump, so...

By Steve Burgess 27 Apr 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a Ph.D in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

Who won the televised leader’s debate? How much will it affect the B.C. election?

Signed,

Viewer

Dear Viewer,

Debates are the key to every election campaign. It is here on the debate stage that party leaders can truly articulate their platforms and policies, and then be judged on how much they sweated or whatever was stuck in their teeth.

Each leader entered this debate with an objective. NDP leader John Horgan’s main goal was to avoid triggering the horrible transformation that causes him to mutate into a green rage monster in shredded purple shorts. It happens when he gets angry or when BC Liberal leader Christy Clark touches his arm. Luckily Clark was not standing within reach this time or she would have adopted the clever Back Seat Annoying Sister Tactic: “MOM! She keeps touching me! She did it again!”

The first big controversy of the night was whether Green leader Andrew Weaver was Mr. Weaver or, as the premier respectfully called him, Dr. Weaver. It’s a wonder that Clark didn’t start referring to him as Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Four years ago the Liberals actually paid for an ad supporting the Green Party, and the premier’s deference to Weaver was a reminder that a strong Green showing is very much in the Liberals’ interest. (On a personal note, Doctor Steve has resolved this issue by legally changing his first name to Doctor.)

Weaver surely felt some momentum heading into the event hours after the Green candidate captured the key seat behind the Canucks’ bench. And history shows Weaver was sitting in the catbird seat Wednesday night. The position of third party leader has traditionally been a sweet spot in debates. The entire rise of the BC Liberal Party can arguably be traced to the 1991 leader’s debate when Social Credit Premier Rita Johnson and NDP leader Mike Harcourt attacked each other and Liberal leader Gordon Wilson chimed in with the line, “Here’s a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia.”

Wilson was neither the first nor the last third wheel to use that angle, but he might have been the most successful — the Liberals went from somewhere deep in a Spuzzum ditch to 17 seats in the legislature. The party was on its way to cannibalizing the decrepit Socreds and taking over the political right.

Could Weaver pull off something similar this year? He touched on the issue of Liberal/NDP sniping about 35 minutes in, and in general was admirably forceful without being impolite.

Moderator Jennifer Burke asked Horgan directly about his famous temper, and Horgan’s answer was his best moment up to that point, saying that issues like the deaths of children in government care do make him angry. In general Horgan was at his best when speaking directly to camera. Less bickery.

Clark got the next tough question: Hey Premier, what about that infamous salary top-up? Clark ducked it like a Milos Raonic serve, offering the most transparently weaselly answer of the night. For the most part though, Clark was her usual comfortable on-camera self. On special occasions, she dials down the smirk.

Crosstalk is always a difficult problem at these events and frankly this debate often sounded like a bunch of jacked-up eighth graders running roughshod over a substitute teacher. Horgan in particular took a bulldozer approach, often talking over Clark’s replies, which probably suited Clark just fine. Horgan’s muttered complaints about his rivals’ running overtime was not a good look either. It was “Mom, she’s touching me,” part two. Surprisingly, Horgan didn’t score many points on the issue of Liberal corporate donations while taking plenty of shots on his party’s union support.

The idea that televised leaders debates make all the difference took a big hit in the Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump contest. But then, virtually every established precept of electoral politics was dynamited last year in a U.S. presidential race that played out like some massive Mythbusters episode.

Once upon a time, political pundits scrutinized every debate statement for some key error, some potential knockout moment. Then Trump took to the debate stage and punched himself in the face again and again like Edward Norton in Fight Club. When it was over Trump had done everything but drop his pants and toot the Battle Hymn of the Republic out his behind. And it didn’t matter.

Sometimes debates don’t matter because voters have made up their minds. That doesn’t seem to be the case this year. If Doc Steve had to call a winner on this contest, it would be his esteemed academic colleague. After Wednesday night, you can call him Dr. Weaver.  [Tyee]

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