Winning the Leaders "Debates"

October 1, 2008 by  

In Canada, the leaders of Canada’s five largest federal political parties will participate in two televised leaders “debates” this week. Owing to the fact that Canada has had two official languages for the last few decades, questions and answers at the October 1st debate (8:00-10:00 PM EST) will be given in French; the English-language debate will occur on October 2 at 9:00-11:00 PM EST. What must each leader do to “win” these debates?

1. It’s Not a Debate: Prepare Content Accordingly

First, all of the leaders must keep in mind that, despite the name given to the event, it is not a debate at all. Consider the format:

  • There will not be any lecterns, and nobody will be standing. The participants will be seated around one table.
  • Only one microphone will be active at any given time, so no person will be able to shout-down another (which should discourage most attempts to do so). Assuming nobody smashes the conch, we can expect a fairly civil discussion.
  • The organizers have described the protocol for each debate as follows:

All questions will be posed by Canadians via videotape…The moderator will pose follow-up questions. Each candidate will have 45 seconds for an opening statement and 45 seconds for a closing statement….Each leader will have 45 seconds to answer each question. This will be followed by approximately eight minutes of open debate.

  • There are five leaders participating such that, on average, each leader will have 96 seconds worth of microphone-on time during the 8 minute “debate” portion for each question. Each debate will be moderated, so the moderator can split up the 8 minute debate period into fairly even-sized portions, allowing each of the five participants the opportunity to speak his/her mind in each 8 minute segment. All told, each leader will have about 2 minutes, 21 seconds to talk with respect to each question.
  • The order of responding to the first question has already been picked for each debate. In the French debate, the order is: 1. Bloc Québécois, 2. Conservative Party of Canada, 3. Liberal Party of Canada, 4. Green Party of Canada, and 5. New Democratic Party of Canada. In the English debate, the order is: 1. Green Party of Canada, 2. Liberal Party of Canada, 3. Conservative Party of Canada, 4. New Democratic Party of Canada, 5. Bloc Québécois. Presumably, the order will advance with each additional question: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 becoming 2, 3, 4, 5, 1 on the second question, and 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, on the third, etc.

Clearly, this is not a format compatible with a real debate:

  • there is inadequate time to make a response detailed enough for any prudent voter to evaluate its logical soundness;
  • there is even less time in which to critique another candidate’s response, unless ones contribution is little other than a critique;
  • during the 45 second response segment for each question, there is not even an opportunity for leader X to critique leader Y’s response if leader Y’s response comes after that of leader X;
  • a debate usually requires a person to agree or disagree with some proposition, but I fully expect some or all of the questions to demand not agreement or disagreement, but a fill-in-the-blank response. Moreover, for those questions that do demand agreement or disagreement, getting any of the leaders clearly to agree or disagree will be as difficult as herding cats. Each leader will want to reframe the proposition, say the proposition is not really relevant to him/her, or pretend he/she is taking a stand while actually fudging. There’s only so much a moderator can do to force a politician to answer the question before time concerns demand that he move on to the next question.

No, this will not be a debate. It will be more like episodes of TVO’s “The Agenda” (which, hint hint, is hosted by the English-language debate host, Steve Paikin) that are taped at the Monk Centre, except with political party leaders instead of journalists and professors; more like an episode of the earlier format of Michael Coren Live! (to see what I mean, have a brief look at some of this footage from a year 2000 episode on government funding for the arts).

That is not to say that it will not be revealing or interesting. It is only to say that the content prepared by the leaders should be less focused on detailed logical argument, and more focused on the creation of easy-to-understand – and to feel – impressions or mental images. The question is not whether “expected revenues of $XB will, given our best estimates of future rates of inflation, continue to cover the anticipated costs of item 16 in my election platform”. The question is (for example) whether a sociologist has the qualifications to determine the economic wisdom of his own platform. Any comment made must be clear, powerfully succinct, and memorable if it is to rise above the inevitably forgotten white noise of the event.

To see what I mean, have a look at the interplay between myself and Larry Solway starting at about 55:30 in the aforementioned video on arts funding. Larry tells a tale of personal financial misfortune, expecting me to change my position in order not to appear insensitive to his self-inflicted loss. He wants to put me on the defensive. Instead, I stick to my guns and reply: “Bad business choice”. Three words, easy to understand, packed with meaning and implications, but hardly even a sentence, much less a detailed logical argument. You can agree or disagree with my response to him, but there is no doubt that it is one of the few things that people will more easily remember from that 1 hour broadcast.

2. Look Good

More important than anything any of the leaders will say is how good they will look sitting at the table. A few thoughts:

  • The fact that the leaders will not be standing means that their heights shouldn’t be a big factor: being the tallest probably won’t buy anyone the presence that a stand-up debate normally helps to buy.
  • The fact that the leaders will not be standing means that the movement of their bodies will have almost no effect. What remains: face, back, arms and hands. They are sitting together at a table, so they had better have the courtesy to look at the other participants, especially the one that is speaking at any given time (what would you think of a person who is looking down or away while you are talking at the holiday dinner table?). Backs should be straight (with their jackets tucked under their respective behinds to prevent their jackets from bunching up or creasing around the neck and shoulders: you want crisp, straight lines): posture matters in a person who expects to lead a country. They should not be overly expressive with their arms: coming too close to other participants could be perceived as rudeness. They should not fiddle with their fingers. The right approach: Pat Buchanan‘s gentle hatchet chop when making emphasis, and his gentle relaxation when not stressing something.

3. Sound Good

John Wayne put it best: “Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.” The best leaders never explain everything. They leave the impression that they know everything that needs to be known. The reason is simple: they, not the governed, are making the decisions, and most of the governed want it that way. Most people want to be reassured, not taught. The best way to reassure, of course, is to appear competent. Normally this will require one actually to be competent, because most people can detect a pretender.

4. Get Face Time While Rising Above the Boors

I have participated in this sort of discussion numerous times and I can tell you that, although the discussion is moderated, the bulk of the time will go to those who correctly seize the opportunity to speak. Do not forget: this broadcast has to have at least some entertainment value, and there is nothing less entertaining than the absence of conflict.

During the 8 minute “debate” segment of each question, the participants must not ask for the opportunity to speak. They must impose themselves immediately after the completion of another speaker’s sentence.

They should avoid “Can/May I just say something?”. Prime Ministers do not ask: Canadians expect them to tell. If candidate X merely asks candidate Y if candidate X may say something, candidate Y is well-advised to ignore the question and keep speaking.

Candidates should avoid childish calls for “turnsies”: they should avoid “fair’s fair” playschool nonsense. Someone worthy of being Prime Minster fights for what is right: he/she does not ask for, or voluntarily permit, what is right to be given a voice on a 50/50 basis with what is wrong/stupid/evil.

At the same time, all leaders should have a store of 3 or 4 statements that they can make when interrupted; statements that make the person who interrupts appear boorish. The key is to appear more civil than the person who interrupted. Something like: “Pardon me sir/madam, but please show some courtesy and allow me to finish” or “You’ve made your point sir/madam, please do not interrupt mine”. And, if the interruptions from boor X continue, have a zinger ready like: “Mr./Ms. ____, if you expect Canadians to believe you will listen to them, you might consider what your incessant interruptions of others on this stage are revealing about you.” But, whatever they do, the leaders should not ask the moderator to intervene or assist them: it would be a show of weakness. No “Mr. Paikin, can I just say something?” should be uttered.

5. General Themes for Each Leader

The entire presentation of each leader should have an over-riding message or theme (whether implicit or explicit).

Stephen Harper (Conservative): He is Canada’s Prime Minister. Canadians really are not too too upset about the way he has governed. He needs only portray himself as the leader who (a) knows what one needs to know in order to make Prime Ministerial decisions, (b) has not done Canada any major disservice during his reign, (c) loves Canada and is protecting Canadians even as he speaks, and (d) knows that the other parties’ wild proposals for change are, at the very least, imprudent given the delicate nature of Canada’s still-successful economy in the face of American and world-wide turmoil. The image: the time-tested uncle who has demonstrated that he has the experience and judgment to take care of things that few understand. The target: ambitious party leaders who have never sat in the Prime Minister’s chair and who, for lack of experience in that role, do not realize the complexity of the system that they want to change with their sweeping proposals for change.

One word: avuncular.

Stéphane Dion (Liberal): Dion must find a way to get the public to disregard his less-than-intimidating appearance and his nervous, thin-skinned/over-sensitive nature. He has to convince people that he sees what too few people, including Harper, can. Think “Revenge of the Nerds“, and you won’t be too far off the general idea of the script. He is better-off playing the victimized genius than the macho hero. Does Harper’s appearance of confidence and relative masculinity mask what is, in fact, a lack of understanding? Dion better make us think so.

Arguably, the best way for Dion to accomplish this is not to say that Harper will change things that should not be changed (which is his party’s present, misguided approach: see Michael Ignatieff in this regard), but that he will fail to change things that must be changed. Attack not Harper’s alleged “hidden agenda” for change, but his demonstrated unwillingness to take “absolutely necessary” proactive steps. Most of all: make it possible for voters to admit to their friends and family, without feeling embarrassment, that they voted Liberal.

One word: bright.

Jack Layton (NDP): Layton has to get much quieter about policy. He must avoid talking about his plans to fight poverty by 2020 and other such tired socialist nonsense. He has to learn that people want signs of good judgment, not proof of good plans. He must make use of the winning face (is it possible to get a picture of this man that is not complimentary?) and posture. In short: he must make us see him as a face worthy of being on our $100 bill. He must promise to represent Canada with a strong (an adjective well harmonized with his chin, eyes and mustache) but peace-loving (the smile) face, and to heal relationships strained by years of war, so that Canada can get back to living the way it did before 9/11. He must agree that Canada is not facing the same economic crisis currently faced by the USA, and must convince us that he would never even consider a change that would undermine Canada’s relative economic security in the face of U.S. economic turmoil.

He must not say that he is campaigning to be Prime Minister. Instead, he must campaign in a way that makes people think he would be a good Prime Minister. He must not demonize Harper. Harper has governed while Canada has kept a fairly even keel and, if Layton wants us to believe that he is Prime Ministerial material, he must be prepared to honour the records of all previous Prime Ministers (even if disagreeing with some of their policies), including Harper. Instead, he must suggest that Canada is capable of doing more than just treading water – as it has under Harper’s reign – and that what is needed is a more Canadian/less American way of doing things; a vision influenced less by U.S. concerns and more by the unique and preferable set of factors facing Canada; more by the NHL and snow boards than by the NFL and surf boards. If this vague, touchy-feely stuff all sounds like BS, that’s because it is BS. Nonetheless, it will sell really well if well-delivered to that portion of the electorate that just does not like Harper and who, faced with Dion, is looking for some hope.

One word: peacetime.

Elizabeth May (Green): May has already said that she will not pretend that she might be the next Prime Minister. This being a de facto debate among Prime Ministerial contenders, there is little she can now do to convince people she is the right pick for the post. The most she can hope for is the official opposition but, in reality, she should really just aim to save face and not end up with zero seats in Parliament. If she has internal polls showing she has candidates with a shot of winning their seats, she should focus on whatever has made those candidates popular in their ridings. She should mention those candidates’ names and, stating that “Canadians want a government that will ____”, she should fill-in the blank with the chief concerns of voters in ridings where the Greens stand a chance of winning a seat.

One word: aware.

Gilles Duceppe (Bloc Quebecois): Duceppe needs merely to do what he always does: say that his sole mission is to champion the cause(s) of Quebec within Canada. Only he can afford to favour one province over others and, as he already knows, he needs to focus upon how his single-minded advocacy of all things Quebec is favourable to representation by parties who feel it necessary to balance Quebec’s concerns with those in other provinces.

One word: Quebec.

6. “Win”

In truth, there is no winning in this format. You do not “win the debate” on Michael Coren Live, and you do not lose it either. Instead, each and every participant presents himself/herself well or poorly. If one does well, one will get “X is my hero” or “he/she really did well”. If one does poorly, one will get “I didn’t think much of X”. If one is exceptionally rude or embarrassing in some way, one will get “What’s with X?!” or “What an ass!”. As proof, consider the comments written at YouTube in respect of the aforementioned episode on government funding for the arts. “Hero”, “ass”, “pompous”, “ridiculous”, “bravery”, etc. are the sorts of words used to evaluate peoples’ performances in formats like this, not “won” or “lost”.

The goal of the debate, therefore, is not to make anyone think you’ve won. Rather, it is to come out having an acceptable brand or, best case scenario, an “heroic” brand. The leaders go into this debate like blank coffee cups. They come out labeled as “Starbucks”, “Tim Hortons”, “McDonald’s”, or “No-Tell Motel”. And, ultimately, they expect voters to carry one of their branded cups around in public until, on, and after, voting day. The worst thing that can happen is to make it embarrassing for people to do so. The best thing that can happen is to leave them proud to do so.


All leaders should calmly and succinctly invoke memorable images rather than making detailed logical arguments, should look good and relaxed, should demand attention, and should one-up others on masculine civility. Where masculinity comes up short, an unusual depth of understanding and foresight must at least be feigned. Harper must be the trusted uncle, Layton the man who will restore normality, Dion the undervalued intellect, May the only person listening to voices outside of the mainstream, and Duceppe the only leader who fights solely for Quebec’s interests. “Winning”, if such a term applies in this sort of event, means that a leader has made it possible for voters to vote for his/her candidates without feeling embarrassment, and without facing any anger or laughter. A knock-out: making someone feel proud that they support that leader and his/her party…like carrying a well-branded cup of coffee along Front Street while wearing ones best attire.


2 Responses to “Winning the Leaders "Debates"”

  1. Glenn on October 1st, 2008 7:40 am

    These parties should be paying you for this advice. Maybe one day we can have PM for PM!

  2. paulalexdij on October 1st, 2008 3:06 pm

    Very impressive analysis.

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