Beyond those famous debating moments

"Did your handlers tell you to talk all the time?"

By now you’ve probably encountered highlights reels of debates past. They make for fun viewing. Those classic Brian Mulroney vs. John Turner moments, both 1984 and 1988, never get old. Jack Layton’s ambush of Michael Ignatieff in 2011 has by now firmly established its place in the canon.

Most debates, though, don’t deliver an indelible exchange. The lessons they teach are less obvious, but at least as relevant—maybe more—when it comes to settling in to watch for what might matter tonight, as Maclean’s hosts the first leaders’ debate of the 2015 campaign.

Two largely forgotten federal Canadian election debates in English are worth considering. Both serve as reminders of how, with multiple leaders on the stage, efforts by one leader maneuver into position to take a good swing at a particular adversary can be nearly impossible.

The crowded stage in 1993’s debate featured then-prime minister Kim Campbell fighting for her share of oxygen in an often testy slanging match among Liberal warhorse Jean Chretien, Reform interloper Preston Manning, the Bloc Québécois’ stentorian Lucien Bouchard, and the NDP’s quite effective Audrey McLaughlin.

If you imagine that lots of fiery exchanges are what matter in a debate, then you’d think this was one for the ages. It featured no shortage of intense back-and-forth. Yet there was no single memorable moment. The consensus was that nobody really won.

Consider what didn’t happen, though. Chrétien did not sound like the washed-up geezer his critics portrayed him as. Campbell did not seem noticeably prime-ministerial, confirming the growing sense that Canadians wouldn’t be giving up much if they voted for change. Pitfall avoided; advantage squandered. His Liberals won big; her Tories were not only ousted but nearly extinguished.

During Harper’s first campaign as Conservative leader in 2004, he seemed impressively unflappable in the leaders’ debate, despite then-prime minister Paul Martin’s dogged efforts to goad him into a more angry exchange on some hot-button subject.

Martin had trouble, no so much with Harper, but with the NDP’s Jack Layton. It’s true that Layton came off as too salesman-like, a trait he often struggled to tamp down. But if Layton didn’t help his own cause, he hurt Martin’s simply by making a lot of noise. “Did your handlers tell you to talk all the time?” a clearly frustrated Martin eventually asked Layton. “You talk a lot but don’t listen very well.”

The upshot was that Martin was unable to use the debate to set up a clear two-way dynamic between himself and Harper, and thus perhaps sap Tory momentum. So the real effect of the debate wasn’t what happened in the TV studio, it was the way an inconclusive outcome forced Martin to shift tactics in the days to follow.

Harper had given Liberal tacticians a slim opening in the debate by mentioning provincial jurisdiction over health. It didn’t seem all that important at the time, but Martin took up saving universal health care as his main message, and it energized him sufficiently to help the Liberals salvage a minority.

Neither of these debates, from 1993 and 2004, went down in election lore. But they demonstrate a few key points. Lots of exciting clashes don’t add up to a debate that shunts the campaign onto a new track. A crowded stage makes it difficult for a leader to provoke a two-way exchange that overshadows the rest of the debate. A debate opportunity missed can be as important, in hindsight, as one grasped.

And even a debate that doesn’t immediately seem to have changed the campaign’s course can, in retrospect, look like a turning point.

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