Without a defining moment, without a massive viewing audience, Tuesday’s televised leaders debate won’t turn the tide of the Ontario election.
The three rivals avoided big mistakes, unleashed their attack lines and unfurled their talking points without a dramatic take-down or catastrophic error that destroys a campaign. It rarely turns out that way, and it didn’t Tuesday night — despite the best efforts of Tory leader Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath to wound Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne.
They both tried, with remarkable similarity, to summon their inner Brian Mulroney by repurposing his devastating attack line from the 1984 federal election contest.
“You had an option, sir, to say no,” Mulroney had taunted outgoing PM John Turner at the time, for having signed off on a final flourish of patronage appointments by his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau.
Fast forward to 2014.
“You had a choice, why did you not choose to stand up for the people of Ontario?” demanded Horwath, noting that as a minister under Dalton McGuinty, Wynne had affixed her signature to the former premier’s decision to relocate the gas plants (when she was bound by cabinet solidarity).
“Why didn’t you just say no?” asked Hudak, in his own eerie echo of Mulroney’s line.
It made for lively television, but lacked the desired effect. Wynne didn’t crumple on the podium, as Turner once did.
The Liberal leader repeated her past apologies and then moved on with a counterattack of her own — asking Hudak to apologize for his mathematical miscalculations with his crumbling Million Jobs Plan.
Wynne was subjected to predictable gang-ups from the opposition leaders, who kept her on the defensive for much of the debate. All three leaders talked over each other (though Hudak was the most respectful, keen to avoid the stereotype of a man patronizing two women in the room).
Horwath interrupted Wynne so frequently that moderator Steve Paikin had to ask her to let her finish a few times. And Wynne looked especially awkward when averting her gaze from her rivals, looking steadfastly into the camera.
Not satisfied with Wynne’s apologies for the gas plant fiasco she inherited from McGuinty, Hudak tried to shame her into denouncing more of her predecessor’s legacy. Wynne wouldn’t bite, throwing back the Mike Harris years at her Tory opponent.
In their two-way debates, Hudak tended to be kinder and gentler toward Horwath, doubtless mindful of the need for a stronger NDP showing in order to peel away progressive votes from the Liberals that would allow his Tories to sneak up the middle in ridings with tight three-way races.
But he couldn’t resist a devastating attack against her: If the provincial Liberals were so irredeemably corrupt all this time, necessitating this spring election, then why had Horwath propped up Dalton McGuinty when he presided over the gas plant scandals?
Horwath certainly succeeded in her strategy of aggressively getting noticed Tuesday night. Squeezed out during most of the campaign to date, she interjected herself into the debate forcefully and got equal time. But she came across as a third-place party leader running for opposition status, tearing a strip off the others while seeming most impassioned about taking the HST off hydro bills. She seemed only to secure her position in third place, rather than recast herself as ready to govern.
Hudak had the advantage Tuesday of coming into the debate with low expectations, given his image as an overly rehearsed, robotic performer. He exceeded those low expectations with a strong pitch for job-creation, and managed to survive relatively unscathed the embarrassment of his economic platform unravelling in recent days.
Viewers who like the idea of corporate tax cuts and public sector job cuts will find much to like in his pitch. As always, he repeated his lines one time too many, and flashed a seemingly false smile two times too many, but voters may be more accustomed to his mannerisms by now.
Wynne, as the incumbent, faced the toughest test Tuesday night. And survived. Like Hudak with his leaky platform, she went into the debate with a decade-long legacy of Dalton McGuinty to defend, and never lost her composure or confidence. The attacks did not shake her (just as her counterattacks failed to rattle her rivals).
Whenever the two opposition leaders lit into her, she tried to go over their heads by addressing the television audience or the person who had posed the question by videotape. It was an effective strategy, and a reminder that for all the ferocity of leaders debates, the point is not so much to defeat one’s opponent as to win over the viewer at home.
Few viewers would feel as if they gained much from the debate. For all the pitter-patter, there was more patter than pith. The politicians have nine more days to claim victory.