Understanding the Debaters

The question pundits always ask about political debates is “who won?” Who had the best lines, especially the best put-downs? I don’t watch debates for this purpose, but rather to understand how the candidates construct their arguments, which might provide some insight into how their minds work, their character, and how they will govern. With that perspective, here are my observations on the Ontario leaders’ debate.

Big Lies and Simple Solutions

Doug Ford often used hyperbole, such as accusing the previous Liberal Government of “destroying the province,” saying that “tens of billions of dollars a year are spent stuck in traffic,” and calling Stephen Lecce, “the best education minister ever.” (The third lie is an insult to the memories of John Robarts and Bill Davis.) Ford’s policy proposals are simplistic and constantly repeated. One is to build expensive infrastructure: highways, public transit, hospitals. A second that caught my attention as an educator is to use the schools to train students for jobs, period. A good education system develops habits of mind and ways of thinking that prepare people for a variety of jobs, which is very different from Doug Ford’s “trade school” model.

Analysts often attempt to determine the grade level of a speakers’ language. The simplicity and often inarticulateness of Ford’s suggests it would be at the ninth-grade level at best. A glaring example was Ford’s ungrammatical response to Green Party leader Mike Schreiner’s critique of Highway 413, “if it was up to you and up to the three of you, you wouldn’t build nothing.”

The Winsome Storyteller

I agree with the media commentators who found Andrea Horwath’s performance disappointing. The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson wrote that she “gave yet another professional performance that failed to connect.” The Toronto Star’s Heather Mallick: “Andrea Horwath was smart and competent as always; it puzzles me that she consistently fails to reach the heights with voters.” I think The Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn got to the heart of the matter: “Horvath played the role of storyteller on stage – endlessly retelling tales of voters she’s connected with on the campaign trail over the past couple of weeks.” Whenever asked about a policy issue, Horwath responded with a story. She had too many stories and told them too quickly. Because of time limits, telling stories meant she didn’t have time to say much about her policies, which therefore sounded simplistic (even if they weren’t). She also seemed to be following the conventional wisdom that female candidates must not be seen as shrill or angry, so she went to great lengths to sound pleasant and upbeat, even when criticizing both the Conservatives and the Liberals. I felt that she was trying to convey too many disparate messages, and the whole performance didn’t come together.

The Knowledgeable Critics

Liberal leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner both entered the date with little public profile. They had a similar style, presenting their platforms knowledgably and in detail, and at every opportunity delivering powerful critiques of the shortcomings of the Ford Government. Both focused on Highway 413, Schreiner on its impact on the environment and destruction of farmland and Del Duca on his rejection of it when he was Minister of Transportation. Del Duca reminded voters of Ford’s failure to “follow the science,” in rejecting the science table’s advice about Covid in spring 2021, and Ford’s disrespect for democracy by frequently absenting himself from Question Period. Schreiner punched through Ford’s obfuscations on health policy by asking “have you talked to a nurse lately?” Ford’s self-congratulatory claim that he worked 24/7 during the pandemic was punctured by Del Duca’s reminder that that was the job for which he was elected.

Both Schreiner and Del Duca did an excellent job at logically, and occasionally with passion, holding the Ford Government accountable. Both did it with more eloquence, clarity, and nuance than Ford presented the Government’s record and platform.

On Balance

In my view, Del Duca and Schreiner gave the best performances. I recognize that I’m a policy wonk who likes logical and detailed discussion of policy, both in presenting one’s own and in criticizing one’s opponents. Other people may have found Ford’s manner folksy and appealing and Horwath’s stories moving. The commentators’ immediate reaction is that because an incumbent with a large lead remained on his feet, the debate wouldn’t have much impact on the parties’ standings. I believe that impressions, particularly of the two candidates who have had little previous province-wide exposure, take a while to crystallize into approval or disapproval, and support or rejection. It will take a few days to judge the deeper impact of the debate.


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