Megapundit: Don’t mess with Jack Layton. He’s a kick-boxer.

Must-reads: Colby Cosh on yogurt; Susan Riley and Benoît Aubin on the debates; Dan Gardner on comparing Harper to Bush; Jeffrey Simpson on Ottawa’s impotence.

Bespectacled man’s burden
What Stéphane Dion had to do, what he did and didn’t do, and what it meant.

The goal: “Buoyed by a strong performance in French, Dion joined the second debate with expectations of restoring his image as a strong leader with a specific plan,” the Toronto Star‘s James Travers writes—particularly when it came to the economy. Dion had to “defend his grand green scheme, define his leadership potential and deliver the message in the most coherent English of his political career,” says the Calgary Herald‘s Don Martin. Sun Media’s Greg Weston suggests Dion needed to effect an “extreme makeover.” And the Vancouver Sun‘s Barbara Yaffe ventures he needed “to make a strong, positive impression in order to rescue a faltering Liberal campaign.”

The results: Travers suggests Dion was hampered by his struggles with English, combined with stronger English-language performances by the Prime Minister, Jack Layton and Elizabeth May, but his economic arguments were “still effective enough to force Harper to distance his policies from the laissez-faire U.S. mess.” Martin says he did very well despite being up against a “far more engaged” Stephen Harper than the night before—and certainly well enough to rally the Liberal ground troops to keep up the good fight until Oct. 14. Weston observed a moderate from Dion, at best—certainly not an extreme one—but says it was perhaps enough to “have saved the Liberal furniture.” Yaffe believes Dion rode low expectations, “serious effort,” some well-placed body blows on Harper, and a good line about choosing the middle ground between the “I-don’t-care approach and the far-too-socialist approach” on the economy to a reasonably positive impression.

The significance: “Even if the opposition leaders won the debates with words, Harper is still winning this election with math,” says Travers, but an “airing” of these economic differences was, if nothing else, “in the public interest.” Martin‘s unconvinced the debates will have any effect in “the real world,” where they “were simply a regular program pre-empting irritant.” Weston is of like mind, suggesting “debates tend more to reinforce voter intentions rather than change minds.” And Yaffe either doesn’t know what the significance of the debates was, or she isn’t telling.

Jack Layton is “a puzzle,” says the Ottawa Citizen‘s Susan Riley: “urban, urbane, misty-eyed when he recounts the sufferings of an impoverished aboriginal community or unemployed autoworker, an avowed feminist, yet as testosterone-charged, unforgiving and unrelenting as a street-corner kick-boxer.” (Anyone know where we can find this street-corner kickboxing? The Byward Market? Phuket?) Layton scored serious points on Harper’ lame response to the arts funding issue, Riley opines; Elizabeth May distinguished herself greatly; and Dion’s “more wordy and mannerly” objections to Harper’s policies may have charmed some votes his way. But, says Riley, Harper’s “political skill and sangfroid—not to mention his impressive anger control” in a four-on-one situation, make him the most obvious victor of the five.

The Star‘s Thomas Walkom awkwardly attempts to compare and contrast, and to judge, last night’s Canadian and American political debates. He complicates the task further by suggesting we think of the debates “not as politics but as reality television,” likening Palin vs. Biden to “a cross between Jerry Springer and American Idol” and Harper vs. All Comers to Survivor, because, “clearly, the opposition leaders want to vote Harper off the island.” Zzzzz.

The Tories’ youth crime proposals “brought home the message that this Harper guy, and his supporters out there are … real … gasp … conservatives!” Benoît Aubin argues in the Ottawa Sun, and “viral broadcasting at its devastating best” has convinced at least some voters that “English Canada (that’s Harper’s code name) knows nothing about Quebec culture, and cares even less.” So why, Aubin wonders, wasn’t Harper standing up for himself during Wednesday’s French debate? He ” must have had some ammo of his own, but he held his fire. Perhaps too intent on appearing statesmanlike and above the fray, he rolled with the punches, but never fought back.” Sanguineness might play well with the soccer moms, but it’s not going to win him his Quebec Breakthrough 2.0.

The National Post‘s John Ivison investigates the possibility that the Tories peaked too soon, concluding that, yes, they probably did, but they’re still going to win. We’d suggest “peaking too soon” is a rather charitable way to describe a campaign whose momentum has been slowed by needless attacks on artists and by letting the agriculture minister and his moustache hide under a rock while people get killed by contaminated lunch meat. Others (Aubin, for example) might suggest they “shot themselves in the foot.”

A good portion of the blame for young Canadians’ indifference to voting can be ascribed to the young Canadians themselves, Michael Harris argues in the Ottawa Sun. “In the age of the Internet,” he says ignorance of the issues is “just plain laziness with a capital L.” But the lack of interest “is merely the leading indicator of a trend that has set in at every level,” he believes, and there are at least two things we could do about it: one, haul our brand of political discourse—”a witch’s brew of willful distortion of the other candidate’s message, half truths, and disdain of the public that borders on the aristocratic”—out of the sewer; and two, redress the outrageous proportional misrepresentation in the Hosue of Commons.

Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty can hold hands and demand more attention from Ottawa all they like, but the Globe‘s Jeffrey Simpson can’t quite figure exactly what it is they want. The feds didn’t make the loonie rise; they didn’t ask Washington or Wall Street to manage their finances in a “dreadful way”; they didn’t tell Queen’s Park to give “its employees very generous settlements … that it now struggles to afford”; they didn’t jack up oil prices and they didn’t tell the auto companies to go into the tank. “Politicians can do a few useful things during the turbulence ahead,” Simpson concludes, “but not nearly as much as some of their posturing suggests.”

The Citizen‘s Dan Gardner is no fun. In his attempt to objectively compare George W. Bush to Stephen Harper, he sets terms of reference that exclude “statements and actions that precede” Harper’s tenure as leader of the opposition (since no politician can indulge his “beliefs, dreams and fantasies”) and, which is even more annoying, exclude reading the Prime Minister’s mind to discern his “hidden agenda.” Using this rubric, Gardner identifies the following legitimate points of intersection between the two men: their belief in small government and their record of greatly expanding it; and ignoring climate change “until it became a political liability.” On many other issues it’s fun and politically profitable to equate Harper with Bush, he concedes, but the beliefs in question—e.g., Harper’s advocacy for civil unions but not gay marriage—are often shared by great swaths of Democrats.

Duly noted
The Globe‘s John Ibbitson observes that Sarah Palin’s “stumbles” in last night’s vice-presidential debate “almost invariably attended those few times when [she] tried to directly answer the moderator’s question.” Joe Biden, meanwhile “had considerable difficulty … in keeping within the time limits imposed by the debate rules.” Both scored some points; neither embarrassed him or herself (which is more notable for the herself). Yet despite unprecedented expectations of disaster for Palin, Ibbitson thinks the whole affair was “rather dull.”

The yogurt aisle at the supermarket “makes me wonder what happened to us as a civilization; who is running things now; what they want and where I fit in,” Colby Cosh writes in an absolutely fantastic column in the Post. We laughed; we cried; it became a part of us. Go, read it.