Who won? Who cares?

COYNE: We’re not picking the best debater. We’re picking a prime minister.

1. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but that set was the most hideous thing I have ever seen. And I’ve been in Communist-era East European hotel lobbies. Orange, yellow and brown? With the corrugated carboard thing? And the… and the… Wha? Who designed this? Union Carbide?

2. On the other hand, I quite liked the format. There were some good exchanges, where you really saw them arguing with something resembling conviction. I thought the Ignatieff-Layton exchange on Afghanistan, for example, was riveting. Another standout moment: Layton on the plight of aboriginal youth. Not even Jack can fake that level of sincerity.

3. Let’s say it: these are four outstandingly talented individuals, who had obviously worked hard and prepared themselves deeply: none of us in the commentariat would last five minutes with these guys. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but I was proud of my democracy last night.

4. Who won? Who cares? That is, if by winning you mean who was the best debater. On points, I’d say it was Ignatieff, but so what? We’re not picking the best debater. We’re picking a prime minister. (Actually, we’re electing a Parliament, who then chooses a PM, but you know what I mean.)

The “winner,” then, is not who had the best lines or scored the most points in the arguments between the candidates, but who most advanced his case with the voters. Or rather, with some of the voters: the undecided, the switchers, the voters not already fer him or agin’ him.

An example. I thought Ignatieff was outstanding on the attack, or rather in defense of Parliament against the abuses it has suffered under this prime minister. He cut to the point, he counterpunched well (“It’s not bickering, Mr. Harper, it’s democracy”), he spoke passionately and persuasively. I’m just not sure he made the case that he should be prime minister, to the voters who most needed to hear that case.

The voters who are most likely to be upset about this issue probably already are: it’s not as if it has not been in the news for months on end. Of those voters, some are either already in the opposition camp, or if they are still with the Tories, have some other reason that trumps their concern about Harper’s autocratic tendencies— or in other words, need some other reason to switch. Which Ignatieff signally failed to give them, as he has throughout this campaign.

Pollsters consistently report majorities in support of two propositions: one, that the country is on the right track, and two, that the government is on the wrong track. Depending on how they answered those two questions, voters can be divided into four different combinations. Those who believe both country and government are on the right track are presumably with the Tories. Those who believe both the country and the government are on the wrong track are presumably in the opposition camp, but split between the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Greens. (Those who think the country’s on the wrong track but the government’s on the right track I’m guessing are just confused.)

But the largest group, and the ones most available to the Liberals, are those who side with the majority on both counts: they’re comfortable with the direction of the country, especially in economic terms, but they’re not at all keen on how the Harper government has been conducting itself. They don’t want a change of course, but they do want a change of captains. If that group could be persuaded they could have a different government while keeping the country essentially on the same track — that is, with broadly the same economic policies as the Tories, but less of the autocratic tendencies and general obnoxiousness — they might well switch. Moreover, the Liberals would not have to share that group with the other opposition parties. A voter who likes the general direction of policy under the Tories is unlikely to be found among the ranks of the NDP, Bloc or Greens.

So the failure of the Liberals to reach out to this group is a puzzle. Sure, there are some soft-NDP voters to be had: the Family Pack would be appealing to them. But there are many more, what shall we call them, disconcerted Tories, who would like to live in a country that is both prosperous and democratic. And for them the Liberals have had nothing: lots of talk about redistributing wealth, not a lot about how to create it. And, frankly, not a lot about how they’d fix our democracy, either.

The whole Liberal campaign has been odd, strategically. It is as if they knew they could not win, and decided to play for a close second: to hold Harper to a minority, that is, rather than try to win outright. If after all, you entered a campaign 14 points down, would you not be inclined to take a few chances? Swing for the fences? And yet the campaign has seemed strangely cautious, aimed more at locking down the base than expanding it, reaching out to the left but not the right —which is to say the centre.

But if that’s his game — hold the Tories to a minority, then defeat them in Parliament and take over the government then — he’s got a problem. It may be perfectly constitutional, legal and legitimate, but it doesn’t sit right with a lot of voters. I don’t have a poll to show that, and I don’t need one: I only have to look at what the Liberals have been saying, or not saying, about it. They went for months avoiding the coalition question, even attempt to skate through the campaign without answering it. And when, two disastrous days later, it became apparent that they could not, they gave a carefully worded answer that talked a lot about what would happen, under a minority Parliament, if the Liberals got the most seats, but said nothing at all about what would happen if the Tories did. Even when they clarified that they would not form a coalition in either event, Ignatieff has never ruled out “governing from second-place” in some other way.

Nor should he: it’s perfectly legitimate. It just happens to be unpopular. That’s the conundrum he faces: to be in a position to form a minority government, he has to avoid talking about it. That’s doable, as long as nobody else talks about it. But it’s hard to do, in a debate.

Which brings me, at long last, to that moment in last night’s debate: when he was asked whether the leader of the party that won the most seats had the right to form a government — the exclusive right, as Stephen Harper insists, dishonestly, brazenly, and, as we know from his own intriguing about as opposition leader in 2004, hypocritically.

I’m sure we’ll see this clip again. Because you can see Ignatieff start to say it, then catch himself, mid-sentence, realizing the danger, but too late to stop. If you get more seats, “you get to try …first … to gain the confidence of the House.” His voice seemed to trail off. But by then the Tory war room was already cranking out the press releases.

I feel uncomfortable discussing it in these terms, as if it were some sort of a gaffe. Let me say it a third time: it is perfectly legitimate, on the defeat of a government in the House, for the Governor General to call upon another party to govern. The Prime Minister is whoever commands the confidence of the House, period.

And indeed, to a great many Canadians, the idea of the Liberals taking power, despite having been defeated in the election, with the explicit support of the NDP and the tacit support of the Bloc, is an entirely untroubling, even welcome prospect. But not all Canadians. Indeed, I’m guessing not even all Liberals.

Some will blanch at how far left such a government would be pulled. Others will be concerned that it would be unstable. And for others, it just looks sneaky, whatever the constitutional experts may say — especially because he won’t talk about it.

He’s caught, in other words, in a strategic box. He wants to appeal to NDP-leaning voters, without being seen to “get into bed with” the NDP. But he can’t form a government without getting into bed with them. And so far as centrist voters become aware of this, he may never get the chance to get into bed with them. So he has to try to keep centrist voters from thinking of this. But the Tories keep reminding them of it at every opportunity.

The Tories have a couple of things working for them. One, a good number of voters are weary of minority government, and yearn for the stability of a majority. Two, the Liberals, it would seem, cannot deliver that majority: they are too far back in the polls. All they can offer is — more of the same? No, something worse, the Tories can argue. Needing the the support of only one of the three opposition parties to govern, the Tories have not been beholden to any of them. But the Liberals, with fewer seats, would very likely need the support of both the NDP and the Bloc. Either this would be unstable, or it would lean rather too far to the left, at least for centrist voters’ liking.

There is a way, of course, for Ignatieff to break out of this box: to gather enough support as to seem likely to win the most seats, at a minimum, ideally to be in a position govern as the Tories have, with the support of different parties at different times (a Liberal majority being quite out of reach). But to do that he has to reach out to that big block voters to his right, rather than the smaller block to his left. That he has not is the key strategic failing of the Liberal campaign.

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