In each country, they were regarded as the pivotal engagements of the election campaign. But few events better dramatized the differences between presidential politics in the United States and the three-way contest for the office of Canadian prime minister than the two sets of televised candidates’ debates. During three hours of relatively decorous disagreement between George Bush and Michael Dukakis on Sept. 25 and Oct. 13, only partisan applause from the studio audience interrupted the carefully crafted campaign rhetoric. There was none of the crackling hostility—and less of the pointed dissection of issues—that rewarded those who sat through last week’s six hours of confrontation in French and English between Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Edward Broadbent. And most Canadians who saw both sets of debates seemed to agree with Tory pollster Allan Gregg, of Toronto’s Decima Research Ltd. Said Gregg: “I thought ours was way better.”
Oratory: That assessment could be challenged. Pointing to the theatrical oratory that marked the Canadian debate, Linda Dyer, a Maine-born pollster who is now based in Fredericton, observed that “hollering and fingerpointing are not my idea of better.” Still, the debates reflected clear differences of political structure as well as style. On one level, Canadian politicians exercise their debating skills in daily exchanges during Question Period in the Commons—a feature of Canadian political life that has no counterpart in Washington. And campaign analysts point to other distinctions, from the larger proportion of Canadians who cast ballots to the kind of issues that influence their decisions.
At the same time, Canadian campaign strategists borrow heavily from techniques pioneered in the United States—including the debates themselves. Tory, Liberal and NDP back rooms buzz with such made-in-the-U.S.A. phrases as “hot-button issue,” “spin doctor” and “sound bite.” To many critics, that propensity to adopt American election techniques has substantial and clearly quantifiable risks. In one widely held view, the dismaying distortions of socalled attack ads—negative advertising aimed at a political opponent’s perceived weaknesses—have contributed to a spreading cynicism and apathy among American voters, many of whom are opting out of the presidential election process, and i'.ireaten to do the same damage to Canada’s different, parliamentary system. “The United States trivializes everything,” declared Stephen Lewis, a former leader of the Ontario NDP and for four years, until last July, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. “It will eventually trivialize our politics as it has trivialized its own.” Triumph: Last week, however, the differences between the two national campaigns were more evident than the similarities. After the staged and choreographed U.S. debate, the three Canadian leaders challenged each other in unscripted language that was often blunt and occasionally angry. Said Gregg: “The BushDukakis debate was a triumph of comportment over substance. [The Canadian debate] ran the gamut of profound differences of policy, emotion, motive and perspectives on the world. As a Canadian, I thought I got full value.”
There are several reasons for the lower electricity level of the American presidential election debate. The format, insisted upon by handlers of the mistake-prone Bush, left all the questioning to three reporters and little room for the two candidates to confront each other directly. That choice was in keeping with the larger design of U.S. democracy—neither in Congress nor in the White House are politicians obliged to mount short-notice, Question Period-style defences of their policies. In addition, Republican charges that Dukakis’s policies are to the left of the American mainstream gave the Massachusetts governor reason to downplay his ideological differences with Bush.
But the differences between the U.S. and Canadian campaigns are more substantial than the stylistic counterpoint of the debates. Crime, drugs and military security—the issues that preoccupy American voters—raise little interest among Canadians more concerned with jobs, national identity and the future of social programs under free trade. In feet, political analysts have traditionally said that Canadian voters are less ideological than Americans and more concerned with social issues. Noted former Conservative MP Ronald Atkey, now a Toronto lawyer and still a Tory campaign adviser: “You cannot go to the extreme right in Canada.” Just as surely, at least on a national level, a candidate cannot go to the extreme left in the United States.
Profound: A more profound distinction will only become clear when the ballots are counted. While roughly three-quarters of the Canadian electorate is expected to vote on Nov. 21— the same percentage that voted in 1984— many forecasters predict that fewer than onehalf of Americans eligible to cast ballots on Nov. 8 will actually do so. One reason is the complexity of voting in the United States. U.S. citizens must first register to vote several weeks in advance of the election and then confront ballots that may contain as many as 30 names of candidates for various local, state and federal posts. Another reason, analysts suggest, is the widespread U.S. belief—at least among Republicans and their sympathizers—that government is not a solution to people’s problems: rather, as President Reagan has said, “Government is the problem.” By contrast, observed NDP federal secretary William Knight: “Canadians fundamentally do believe that government can set the agenda.”
American voters may also simply be repelled by what most Canadians—and many Americans—regard as the most dismaying feature of the U.S. campaign: the use of “attack ads.” Negative television advertising has been aired before in other elections and on both sides of the border, but seldom have the attacks been as personal or as pointed. The most chilling examples of the national campaign in the United States have been produced by the Bush camp. In one example, criminals—many of them black or Hispanic—go in and out of a revolving door while an announcer accuses Gov. Dukakis of releasing murderers from Massachusetts prisons on weekend passes. The ads have provoked debate among Americans — USA Today last week devoted several pages to the pros and cons of the technique— but they have undeniably helped Bush’s comefrom-behind surge to a substantial lead in the polls.
Attack: Canadian political tacticians say that blatant attack ads are unlikely to appear in Canada. “Clearly,” said Michael Robinson, chief financial officer for the Liberal party and a key campaign adviser, “all the Canadian parties have avoided the black advertising that we have seen down there. That kind of character assassination would backfire in Canada.” NDP campaign director Robin Sears, noting that his party has also rejected the technique, observed, “There is a civility in Canadian public life which has disappeared in the United States.” For their part, Conservative strategists have a contingency plan for negative ads but they have not ordered them produced.
According to Atkey, they have not been needed. “Turner’s own party has done the job for us,” he said.
Tactics: But with few exceptions, most other election tactics invented for U.S. campaigns have found their way into Canadian races. “The skill level down there is awesome,” remarked Gregg, “largely because it is the most competitive political market in the world. We borrow from it all the time.” In feet, with midterm congressional elections, state and local votes for positions from governor to dogcatcher—as well as months of primaries leading up to the race for the presidency—the United States holds more elections than most other countries. The presence of a large number of independent political consultants has also contributed to the fertile climate for innovation.
One recent development has excited the admiration of Canadian political operatives in all three parties: the ability of U.S. campaigns to tailor political communications to the concerns of very specific groups of voters. Remarked the NDP’s Sears: “They know how to find the 20-year-old single male yuppie, to pick the message that is important to that individual and make the media buy that will reach him.”
That the American campaign techniques are effective is evident. Whether they are good for democracy—or even for politics—is less clear. As the ranks of campaign aides have grown to include pollsters, “spin doctors” (party insiders who try to influence media accounts of candidates’ performances), wardrobe consultants and dirt-diggers, they have increasingly blocked out the public’s view of the candidates themselves. “Both these candidates are suffering an excess of control in their camps,” said Richard Anderson, a Canadian who managed Donald Johnston’s 1984 campaign for the Liberal leadership and who now works as a lobbyist in Washington. “They have both been robbed of any confidence in their ability to be spontaneous.” Meanwhile, pollster Dyer says that the new popularity of attack ads will discourage even more Americans from voting, while dissuading others from running for office—with worrisome consequences for the future. “What happens in a democracy if candidates don’t rise?” Dyer asked. “Or if people don’t turn out to vote? That is what is happening in the United States, and that same political crisis could happen in Canada.”
Limits: But Liberal adviser Robinson, for one, observed that Canada’s lower limits on campaign spending discourage its politicians from emulating the more grotesque excesses of American political image-making. “We should take some comfort in this country that ours is a far healthier political process than in the United States,” Robinson said. “You don’t need $15 million to get elected.” It was also clear, from the bracing vigor of last week’s debate, that whatever else Canada’s campaigns might owe to the U.S. model of media politics, they had nothing to learn—and possibly something to teach—about the bareknuckle art of political prizefighting.
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