Paul Wells on a debate of great commotion - Macleans.ca

Paul Wells on a debate of great commotion

Who won the Globe and Mail’s debate on the economy? Paul Wells weighs in

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (L), NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (C) and Progressive Conservative leader Stephen Harper walk on stage before photo opportunity prior to the beginning of  the Globe and Mail Leaders Debate in Calgary, Alberta September 17, 2015. (MIKE STURK/Reuters)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (L), NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (C) and Conservative leader Stephen Harper walk on stage before photo opportunity prior to the beginning of the Globe and Mail Leaders Debate in Calgary, Alberta September 17, 2015. (MIKE STURK/Reuters)

At one point near the end of the Globe and Mail debate on the economy last night from Calgary, I flashed on the scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse where the horse is trapped in barbed wire in the no-man’s land between battlefield trenches, as exploding munitions light the night sky above. This is probably not the association the debate’s organizers had in mind, but the psychedelic backdrop, the confused shouting from all sides, and the knowledge that there was a live audience trapped in that room, unable to escape, brought it all rushing back to me.

Related: Lessons from a one-time debate moderator

But enough about format. Amid the shouting, I thought I could dimly perceive a debate, one whose general outline matched what you might have expected at this point in the long campaign of 2015. (Transcript: Here.) Tempers were shorter than when these men (and Elizabeth May) last convened, on a more brightly lit set, on Aug. 6. The end is closer, mistakes cost more, and the simple physical grind of six weeks on the road has made them all bears to be near. Sometimes they simply snarled. Tom Mulcair has almost completely put his reputation for hot temper behind him, but you could see it a few times on this evening and it was ferocious to behold.

In their calmer moments, each of the three prosecuted the case he wants to make for a chance to break out of the three-way polling tie that has characterized this campaign.

I suspect Justin Trudeau made the most commotion. He pivoted hard, twice, away from the core economic issues to take strong shots at Harper on tenuously related issues. Syrian refugees first, then the long-form census. (Moderator David Walmsley tried to turn the refugee talk back to the economy, but it came during a segment explicitly devoted to immigration. And refugees, like immigration more broadly, are indeed in part an economic issue. The Globe’s first instinct, to have an expansive and thoughtful discussion, was the right one.)

Related: One economy. Three visions. What the leaders want to articulate

In general, Trudeau was seeking to establish himself as the most eager, disruptive leader. “The main thing I disagree with them on is their lack of ambition for the country,” he said of Mulcair and Harper. Hence his decision to run deficits, to pay for bigger infrastructure spending than Mulcair can afford, essentially outflanking the New Democrat on the left.

Harper ran as the incumbent, which had the advantage of being true and is also a stance voters often like in this sort of debate. He waited his turn, rarely raised his voice, and often dismissed the others’ projects as simply unrealistic and naive. “Mr. Trudeau has former public servants and politicians”—as advisers; the reference was plainly to David Dodge, the longtime deputy minister who has masterminded Trudeau’s deficits-for-infrastructure plan —“who tell him it’s okay to spend more,” Harper said. “I’ve gotta tell you something: Those people will always tell you to spend more.” This was vintage Harper: world-weary, kind of funny, but also staking out his role as a man with a starkly different idea of government from all those “former public servants.”

    Mulcair pursued the very clear path he has trod since even before this campaign began in 1952: as the most moderate and reassuring New Democrat you ever saw, the Tony Blair of a Canadian New Labour movement. “I personally believe the best social program is a strong family,” Mulcair said, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan; when I tweeted that line, I noted that Rebecca Blaikie, the national president of the NDP, retweeted it. It’s solid Mulcair message track, because it appeals to middle-class parents who may have been voting Conservative but are amazed to find themselves considering the NDP for the first time.

    Who won? I haven’t the faintest idea. We won’t have to wait long to find out, though. The three large parties have been locked in a polling tie for a week, and close to it for a lot longer. If anyone pulls ahead or starts to fall over the next several days, it’ll be hard to ascribe that change to anything but the debate. It’s an unusually neat natural experiment.

    BULLDOG-sell