Reaction Roundup: what the country’s saying about last night’s leaders’ debate

Reaction Roundup: what the country’s saying about last night’s leaders’ debate

For two hours yesterday, Steve Paikin did his community service of herding the four cats party leaders onto a stage and forcing them to answer questions. The leaders—Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe—proceeded to ignore those questions and talk about whatever their aides told them to talk about. Throughout the night, Ignatieff would try to bring things back to “the original question,” sounding like he both respected voters and thought maybe his opponents were easily distracted. There were no truly devastating moments, though there were some odd ones: Ignatieff at times seemed to pause mid-sentence and give his internal CPU a reboot, while Harper at one point kept saying “Mr. Speaker,” which just reminds us of how practised these guys all are at shouting at each other.

The real debate, though, isn’t won on TV. It’s won in the minds of the pundits of the nation. How did the debate go on that front? Here, our roundup.

• Ignatieff lost. The consensus is that the Liberal Leader needed to show himself to be prime minister material, and to show that Harper isn’t—which is really difficult to do against someone who is prime minister. On CBC’s “At Issue” panel, Andrew Coyne went so far as to say that any hope of an Ignatieff winning the election Liberal government was lost last night. Adam Radwanski at the Globe and Mail suggests that all Ignatieff’s flailing ”won’t have gotten him much of anywhere” unless Canadians suddenly wake up and realize they’re as angry about Harper as the Liberals are. Sadly for Iggy, the polls suggest that this isn’t likely.

• Just about the only high point in Ignatieff’s night was his direct attack on Harper’s record of respect for Parliament. After Harper repeatedly referred to “bickering” in Parliament, Ignatieff shot back, “This isn’t bickering, Mr. Harper. This is democracy. This is a debate. It’s not some pesky little irrelevance that gets in the way of your power.” It impressed Chris Selley at the National Post, but, unfortunately for Ignatieff, it was pretty much the only thing he did last night that impressed anyone.

• How did Harper do? He came out of the debate pretty much like he went in: looking like the prime minister. His message track was near-perfect. He didn’t really hide from his record (though he certainly has a different interpretation of it than the opposition) and he didn’t show up snarling and barking, which is what the opposition always hopes for. When Ignatieff goaded him with lines like, “What are you afraid of?” Harper stayed calm. Even Liberal attack dog Warren Kinsella complimented Harper’s discipline.

• The other two leaders filled out the night well enough: Layton scored a decent hit on Ignatieff’s attendance record and will immortalize this debate by having introduced “hashtag fail” to the broader national debate. Duceppe went through the debate with the ease of a man who’s done this before and could in any case sleep through the English-language debate without too much concern.

All that said, this was the half-time show. There are three weeks left in the campaign, and things are just going to get uglier from here on in. The Liberals are already unveiling new attack ads.

• Ignatieff unloads with both barrels – but fails to wound Harper [Globe and Mail]
• Chris Selley: Ignatieff sticks to script, misses opportunity to close gap on Harper [National Post]
• #db8: Twitter traffic ‘erupted’ during leaders’ debate []

(Images: Duceppe, CDCC; Ignetieff, Radey Barrack; Harper, Robert Thivierge; Layton, Matt Jiggins; Paikin, TVO)

UPDATE (April 14, 9:54 a.m.): This post was changed to reflect Mr. Coyne’s statement more accurately.)