Tonight’s debate: the drinking game

Tonight, Canada’s four national mainstream party leaders (and one wildcard) will gather at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre for the English language debate. To occupy yourself while you twitter, and yell at the screen here’s the debate drinking game.

First, pick your poison.

If you support Stephane Dion, make sure you have some Château Pétrus on hand. Sip it slowly and savour it. If Stephen Harper is your guy, go to the corner store and get yourself some Coke Zero. Same great taste, zero calories. For those of you supporting Jack Layton, grab a can of Steelworkers Oatmeal Stout. Gilles Duceppe will be in the debate and without much of a clear purpose, if he’s your choice, just pour yourself something bitter. Finally, if you choose Elizabeth May finish your organic pomegranate with vodka and then go and mooch off of Dion. That Pétrus is some good stuff, and though and it won’t give you a hangover unlike the one that came after that thirteen year bender when the Liberals were drunk with power.

And now the rules:

If Jack Layton references the initiatives of one of his MPs, take a drink.

If Elizabeth May calls an idea/policy/person “stupid”/”ridiculous”/”outrageous” take a drink.

If Stephen Harper talks about the fundamentals of the Canadian economy take a drink.

If a leader says “George Bush” take a drink.

If Stephen Harper says “George Bush” finish the bottle and keep drinking til it stops hurting.

If a leader says in reference to Dion “you didn’t get it done”, “Mr. Dion doesn’t think it’s easy to make priorities” take a drink.

If Dion says “this is unfair”, finish the bottle.

Every time Duceppe puts the emphAsis on the wrong SyllAble take a drink.

Every time Dion seeks clarification take a drink.

If Jack Layton says “corporate tax cuts”, “boardroom/kitchen table”, “Ed Broadbent”, “Tommy Douglas”, “hope/change”, “working families”, “big oil/gas/pharma/banks” take a drink.

If Jack Layton says “big labour”, “big ass” or “Barack Obama” finish the bottle.

If Elizabeth May/Jack Layton/Stephane Dion cite Al Gore or David Suzuki take a drink.

If Stephen Harper cites Al Gore or David Suzuki finish the bottle.

Every time Harper/Layton tag-team Dion take a drink. Every time Dion/May tag-team Harper take a drink.

Anytime anyone tag-teams anyone with Duceppe, finish the bottle.

Every time Steve Paikin brings out his pleasant non-offensive wit, take a drink.

If Steve Paikin makes an off-colour joke, finish the bottle.

Add your own in the comments, and… please drink responsibly.

“Clearly, our leader won the debate”

You’ll hear this line from every party but the first public utterance of it that I saw was from the Liberal camp on twitter:

“Stéphane Dion won decisively! He clearly demonstrated that he is the only leader with a credible plan for Canada’s economy!”

This might be the same “credible plan” that was introduced on the floor of the NAC tonight by Dion that CTV commentators admitted reminded them of Paul Martin’s “Hail Mary” Not Withstanding Clause policy at the 2006 leader’s debate. Nobody heard about this plan until tonight. Having already released their platform, which was or wasn’t about the Green Shift depending on what polls Liberal strategists were reading in a given day, the Liberals seem to have released a second draft of their platform tonight. On the economy, is Stephane Dion making it up as he goes along?

The Liberals are stuck in a difficult place during this election. The Green Shift was a train that had already left the station and for Mr. Dion one that was already serving dinner in the dining car when Canadians suddenly became fixed upon the economy. For a serious political party that is vying for power, it is not simply enough to attack a party on an issue — especially one on which one’s rival is strong — but one must also define the path that a party’s leader would take should he or she become Prime Minister. What is astounding, is that Dion is reacting to the global economic crisis like an investor that gets the market numbers from the local TV news between the weather and sports. On the twenty-third day of the election campaign, Dion derails the train and tries to make it hop the tracks. Instead of being proactive on the economy, Dion is reactive.

For the Conservatives, this is an easy pick-up because it underlines the message they’ve been carrying as one of their main themes since this campaign started: Harper represents stability and Dion represents risk. What a disaster it was to see Mr. Dion drop his bombshell so quietly on the debate floor while the other leaders simply paused and moved on. Mr. Dion appeared but as one of four opposition voices — hardly dominant — against the Prime Minister and for Mr. Harper, representing one pole of a polar argument doesn’t exactly hurt his chances.

The most heated exchanges during the debate occurred between Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe, the two front runners of the election in Quebec. On the issues of 14/16 year-olds going to prison for serious crime and repeat offenses, Harper with rare emotion for the evening responded by backing up his plan with third party endorsements of the idea from a police union president and the head of a victim’s rights group. On the Quebec nation and Mr. Duceppe’s two day hesitation and subsequent reversal on the motion that declared Quebec a nation within a united Canada, Mr. Harper demonstrated strength. However, on most other issues such as the environment and the arts, the four-on-one atmosphere that Duceppe led for most of the evening showed the Prime Minister defending his record, the default position for any incumbent.

Will this debate move numbers in Quebec? Likely not. For Mr. Harper, this may mean that he might need a scripting change for that province in order to produce a game-changer that may light a fire under his numbers there. On the other hand, Bloc support may have firmed up on the island of Montreal and the numbers breakdown outside of the city may float Mr. Harper in the more conservative regions of la belle province in order to secure that majority.

The battle for second place

As we enter the third week of the federal election campaign, one cannot help but be struck by how early poll numbers suggesting a Conservative majority government have held. Nanos/CPAC numbers were fairly consistent over the past three days indicating an approximate fifteen point margin between the Conservatives and the Liberals. As one senior Liberal strategist told Sunmedia’s Greg Weston, “For us to make any significant gains would require that just about everything go terribly wrong for the Conservatives.”

We’re about to see the opening of a secondary race; the race for Stornoway is going to be of intense media focus. Consider this: the NDP has a greater chance of tieing or surpassing the Liberals than Liberal leader Stephane Dion has of challenging Stephen Harper for the lead. When we consider this truth, the narrative changes: this is no longer a race to replace the Prime Minister, this is a race to hold him to a minority. And, as NDP and Liberal numbers tighten up, there’s a new math problem for the left-wing collective calculator to solve. Indeed, pollster Angus-Reid yesterday showed results of a national tie between the Dippers and Grits with a larger sample size than usual and a margin of error of just 2.5%.

The New Democrats have always battled with the Liberals to be champions of the left, and now a new entrant – the Greens – are proving to be a serious challenge for Layton. In the past, we’ve seen the estranged Liberal family unite under the banner of the Think-Twice Coalition that usually includes folks like Buzz Hargrove, Maude Barlow, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. Will we see an 11th hour alliance between Liberals and the Greens or will such a move sour the goodwill that May has built by making a case for her inclusion in the leader’s debate?

If the Tories play things responsibly and do some smart thinking – twice if need be – and refrain from being too eager to respond to each and every opportunity to put out some pushback, this race will focus on the territorial skirmish on the left. This week’s debate may just help Canadians break from the psychology of the Conservative-Liberal dichotomy and a solid performance from Jack Layton is important for this to happen. In fact, look for Stephen Harper to be a willing combatant against Layton when the NDP leader challenges him this Thursday. Harper and Layton will balance this by doing their best to dunk Dion with their respective right and left feet whenever he tries to get his head above water but we’ll see Elizabeth May come to his rescue in order to get some valuable stage time. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe will just muddle the left-wing message by taking up yet another podium and will do well to underscore the divide between a calm and collected Harper and the jumbled, disjointed side-show to his left. Though Canadians have been impressed with Duceppe’s English language debate performances in the past and are familiar with the Bloc leader, having a separatist voice among the muddled and crowded opposition will just lead more Canadians to side with Harper. If Layton finds his voice with Harper’s help, a strong debate performance by the NDP, in concert with the surging of his party’s poll numbers and the darkness embracing the Liberals may change the media narrative (and Canadian psychology) to think of the NDP as the champion of the underdog left. It is doubtful that the media will then focus on Harper vs. Layton for the rest of the race. They will, however, treat the Dion-Layton-May contest as its own.

The combination of these factors will put the Liberals in crisis mode as their war-room, faced with a question of survival, not only electoral but institutional, debates on whether to spend the limit or bank the few dollars that come its way during the rare fundraising event that is a general election.

What hasn’t been discussed may in fact be the clincher for a Harper majority this election. With so many parties eating each other’s lunch on the left, that magic 40% threshold for a majority may in fact be old math. Jean Chretien, facing a fractured right won a 155 seat majority with 38.5% of the popular vote. The left has pushed for proportional representation in the past in order to buck unity of ideology for increased representation in Parliament. After October 14th, as May, Layton and whoever replaces Dion work over the new math they might come to realize that unity presents the only way forward. For now, the left battles itself with four divided voices and the prize is second place.