The first debate: where they stood

Rarely has the geography of a leaders’ debate seemed so significant

Rarely has the geography of a leaders’ debate seemed as important as it did tonight. Early on Jack Layton established why proximity matters by using his position at the Prime Minister’s left elbow to lean in and make it personal.

“I’m asking myself, ‘cause  I’m  remembering a Stephen Harper once upon a time, who came here to change Ottawa, was going to stick up for the little guy,” Layton said while hold forth on the government’s corporate tax cuts. “But you’ve become what you used to oppose.”

Throughout the evening, his most effective maneuver was to take a policy discussion and turn it into a personal critique of Harper or, pivoting to his other side, Michael Ignatieff.

Harper used his position out on one side to try to remain detached from the fray, fixing his gaze on the TV camera as often as he could, and avoiding eye contact with the other guys that might, I suppose, have brought him down to their level from the prime-ministerial heights.

He’s mastered a tone of voice that might be called lofty exasperation. He seemed most in command whenever he reduced a complex argument to short lists of policy points, or to a brief, impatient lecture on his operating principles.

“Mr. Ignatieff, you’re not able to invest in health care and services and education that matters to people by raising taxes,” he said in one typical exchange with his main rival. “You do that by growing the economy.”

For Ignatieff, being squeezed between Layton and Gilles Duceppe wasn’t good luck. Engaging with Duceppe in the English debate wouldn’t gain him much of anything. As for the NDP leader, Ignatieff clearly wanted to speak right past him to Harper.

But that straining amplified the urgency in Ignatieff’s voice, which was often underlined by intense hand gestures. Pushing that hard is risky on TV. Still, he settled down somewhat in the second half. And his emphatic tone might come across better in ten-second clips than it did over a two-hour broadcast.

“This comes down to a moment of choice,” he said in one of many clip-worthy summary statements. “You can either spend it on corporate tax breaks, multimillion-dollar expenditure of prisons, billions on jets, big gifts to upper middle class Canadians to reduce their taxes, or you can support health care.”