Ontario Election 2011: Waiting for Bartlet

As published on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star this morning and reprinted by their kind permission as always.

If you’re a political junkie, watching The West Wing spoils you.

Listening to imaginary politicians like Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet lacerate their opponents with the inspired, honey-tongued erudition that is the trademark of writer Aaron Sorkin creates an expectation that real life should function the same way.  That our leaders should be able to articulate their arguments so clearly and incisively, that contrarians can do nothing but wither at the mere sound of the words.

Tuning into an Ontario election debate disabuses one of that notion.

I wasn’t able to attend the Burlington debate this week.  The organizers apparently did not count on much, if any public attendance, given their decision to schedule it during the Tuesday morning commute.  One of the highlights, it seems, was Conservative candidate Jane McKenna warning that Ontario’s economy risks going the way of Greece should the Liberals be re-elected.  The cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of democracy and souvlaki, held up as the paradigm of governmental failure – by candidates seeking government office through democratic election.  One could write several college English papers on the levels of irony at work here.  What is less ironic is that McKenna probably didn’t come up with that insightful analogy on her own; it was likely scripted, shaped and poll-tested at Hudak Headquarters before being rolled out for Burlington’s ears on Tuesday morning.

A few thousand years before Greece’s economy collapsed, its scholars were shaping the fabric of democracy itself through their dialogues and discussions.  Our best literature is that which raises new ideas and examines them from all sides; thesis challenged with antithesis to generate a new conclusion.  We haven’t seen that in a political debate in ages.  Nowadays, debates are more like joint press conferences where each candidate recites his or her pre-approved script by rote and hopes not to stumble over the words they didn’t write themselves.  The one debate I was able to attend a few weeks ago, for a different riding, featured five candidates who barely acknowledged each other’s presence, let alone interacted or challenged each other to defend their ideas.  No minds were opened that evening, no fence-sitters swayed or opponents converted.  Deliver talking point, lather, rinse, repeat, snooze.

Indeed, the bar has been set so low that all a candidate need do is not knock over their podium to be judged as having given a solid performance.  It was amazing to witness the struggle with which columnists and bloggers attempted to ascribe victory to any of the contenders in Tuesday night’s leader’s debate.  Tim Hudak saying to Dalton McGuinty that “no one believes you anymore” was apparently a signature moment.  Andrea Horwath’s tale about her son being sent away from an ER with a bone fracture was another “winner.”  And the Premier garnered more ink for his animated hand gestures than for anything he actually said.

Seasoned political reporters disdain the idea of the “knockout punch,” like Brian Mulroney’s “You had an option, sir,” or Jack Layton’s “If Canadians don’t show up to work, they don’t get a promotion.”  They think it’s less important than staying on message, sticking to your platform, getting the facts out.  They’re probably right.  But the unabashed theatricality of moments like that is what makes voters not just choose a candidate, but fall in love with them.  It’s one thing to have a great platform and a solid message.  But we want to see someone alive on that stage, a true character – not a marionette who has to calculate all the potential political blowback of each word before he speaks it.

Today there is too much fear of fallout to risk letting the human being shine through – too much central control of the campaign, lest news cycles be lost to apologies, denials and explanations for rogue nominees going off-message.  The very process that selects candidates tends to weed out the most colorful, and only the blandest and safest survive the slings and arrows to make it to that podium.  Those that do rely on the same tactics – the tales of struggling souls encountered along the campaign trail whose concerns oddly happen to dovetail with the key planks of the party’s platform, the countless mentions of family, the interruptions, the use of “taxes” as a profanity.  You know what they’re going to say before they say it.  What I felt was Tim Hudak’s most clever line of the night, about rearranging his daughter’s alphabet magnets randomly to form the initials of every unnecessary Ontario government agency, was a little less fresh given that PC candidate Ted Chudleigh used the same line in the Halton debate a few weeks prior.  Or that Republicans were laying the exact same charge against the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940’s.

Debates are a cornerstone of the democratic process.  That we only have one leader’s debate in an election cycle is preposterous.  We need more.  And just once it would be great if the debaters threw away the script.  If we junked those stilted “questions from average Canadians” and let the politicians have at it in a real sparring match of intellectual prowess, one that allowed us to distinguish clearly between which ideology we feel is best to guide us into the next decade.  To make our choice not for just the best policies, but for the best person; not a manager, but a visionary.

That’s how The West Wing got Jed Bartlet.  That’s how you pick a leader.