Now that the leaders’ debate is over, will the media put their “horse race” coverage behind them and start focusing on matters of substance?
For many news media, including two major TV networks, the top day-after issue was who won the debate or who claimed to have won. Never mind what was said during the debate – or any information that might better inform a voter who missed the televised exchange.
Meanwhile, for this newspaper, the primary post-debate coverage of the PC campaign was a screaming headline, "Hudak rallies behind candidate whose husband is charged with sex assault."
That’s right. Not a PC candidate. Not charges involving a PC candidate. A candidate’s spouse. A candidate’s husband, to be precise.
Maybe in the 19th century it was acceptable to believe that a woman’s fitness to occupy a job was related to the conduct – we should stress, alleged conduct – of her husband. But this campaign is occurring in 2011, folks.
How backward, insulting, patronising and, quite frankly, un-Star like, to imply that a husband’s behaviour (alleged behaviour) reflects on a modern woman’s suitability for elected office.
For the record, following the debate the PC leader delivered a message of substance. Those interested can read it here. Mr. McGuinty was also talking post-debate policy. On the other hand, perhaps taking her cue from the news media, Ms Horwath eschewed substance in favour of process. Her dominant Debate Day +1 message was that the NDP has momentum, lots of momentum.
The news media are now reporting that the campaign has entered the home stretch – which of course means that their reports will focus even more heavily on process, to the exclusion of substance.
At the same time, the major parties will be relying even more heavily on paid advertising. People tend to deride those TV commercials as simplistic, self-serving and shallow. Fair enough. But they are one of the only ways in which a political party can communicate directly with the voters ... especially when the news coverage is insubstantial.
- Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper
Response from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
I agree with Guy’s assessment of the post-debate media coverage. There continues to be a pronounced lack of reporting about substantive issues. Energy policy? The economy? Who needs that stuff when we can talk horserace - who's up, who's down, and who's got the big 'Mo?
As I stated post-debate, I don’t think that there was a clear winner - at least not on the things that matter in most voters' calculus.
But reporters seem to think that Andrea Horwath is the greatest debater this side of Oxford, and the NDP is falling over themselves to let them. And why shouldn't they? Talking about unmeasureables like momentum, likeability, and the YWCA effect is SO much more fun than trying to explain away the logical inconsistencies in their platform, or the fact their costing document would make Enron's accountant blush.
Reporters' failure to ask, and the NDP's failure to answer, is unfortunate because, as I've argued before, there are very serious (not to mention very obvious) questions about their platform. Like every major party, the NDP has a duty to present their plan (read: dangerous protectionism) and their math (however dubious) clearly and often to the people they propose to lead. So far, they've shirked it.
One also hopes that Ms Horwath’s “I’m just a girl in the world" mantra will be shelved during the last week of the campaign. Far from avoiding mud, the NDP have been slinging it Jackson Pollock-style. Case in point: Ms. Horwath's televised attack on one of the best hospitals in Canada, which she was forced to walk back the next day after the "truthiness" of her story became clear.
My advice to Ms. Horwath is, if you want voters to take the NDP seriously, then start acting seriously.
Regarding the PCs, Guy is quite right: they talked policy following the debate, and I thank them for it. In fact, I hope they continue talking about gangs of unrestrained prisoners wandering our streets being monitored by one or two armed or unarmed non-police officers. I'll give credit where credit is due: Changebook doesn't address the need to create a modern economy, and it may have more holes than a golf course, but at least the PCs are talking about it.
This brings me back to Dalton McGuinty, who talked about policy and the future in substantive terms every day before the debate, and has done the same every day since. Voters tend to notice - and value - that stuff. That's why I'm confident that, on October 7, Mr. McGuinty will be back in the Premier's Office, Mr. Hudak will be back in the Official Opposition's Leader's office, and Ms Horwath will have plenty of time to ponder what went wrong - and maybe take that dee-jay up on his offer of dating advice.
Response from Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP:
In their pieces, Guy and Erika suggest that only Ontario's Liberals and PC Party are entitled to govern. It's a view widely shared by much of Ontario's corporate establishment, folks who want to maintain a status quo that favours them, not change that puts people first.
What my Daily Exchange colleagues fail to appreciate is that they and their parties don't have the final say on who governs. Neither do the elites at the top who have all the money and usually get to call the shots. It's voters who decide. And on October 6, voters will deliver their verdict on who's fit for office, and who they want representing them at Queen's Park.
This exchange, and Erika's piece in particular, reminds me of the old saying: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." It strikes me this aptly describes the story arc for this campaign. At first, the Liberals ignored the NDP. When the NDP's support held firm through the campaign's first few days, it was on to jokes and name-calling (my personal favourite was the Paula Abdul comparison). Now, after Horwath's home run debate performance, the Liberals have launched panicked, last-minute attacks on Horwath, including today's hyper-partisan screed from Erika attacking Horwath and her fitness to govern. Only Dalton McGuinty, Erika tells us, can provide the serious leadership we need on the issues that matter most to Ontario families.
Let's review the substantive issues Team McGuinty wants to debate in the campaign’s crucial final days.
There's Greg Sorbara addressing burning issues around the NDP's landlord. There's Laurel Broten questioning how injured Horwath's son really was when he went to the hospital. There's Bob Chiarelli denouncing a $500-million tax hike that Tim Hudak hasn't proposed. Another release about Horwath's son. And so on and so on.
If McGuinty wants to have a serious debate about the issues he sure hasn't informed his campaign team. They have steered McGuinty clear of all but one debate, not to mention all interaction with any human being not hand-picked and vetted by his day planners. Instead, they've chosen to engage in a series of goofy and irrelevant war room stunts with enough mind-numbing childishness to embarrass a frat house.
Everyone understands what's really going on here.
McGuinty and Liberals are losing ground to the NDP. It's not just because poll after poll shows Horwath is a likeable and authentic leader. It's because voters believe Horwath's New Democrats have the best policies.
Horwath's message of rewarding job creators instead of handing out no-string-attached corporate tax cuts, of improving the affordability of everyday life for everyday families and of improving health care has clearly struck a chord with many voters.
Rather than stick to the high road and face their declining fortunes with a semblance of grace, Liberals are simply making the case for why voters should choose change.