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Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy
Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Flanagan and Duffy

Election Ringside, April 14: Running against the system itself Add to ...

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: John Duffy Sent: Thursday, April 14, 10:08 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

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Bonjour, Tom. An interesting French debate on Wednesday, and some interesting data regarding Tuesday's English outing.

Everyone's game was improved - with the exception, I'm afraid, of Stephen Harper. Two nights ago, I thought the Prime Minister effectively made his one-of-us-guys-is-not-like-the-others pitch for a majority. Last night, it seemed to me that the physical positioning, the content of the questions and the tone of the discussion made him less the figure standing above the madding crowd and more the outlier. The Quebec consensus is like that. And it looks as though the PM underperformed his expectations, too. That dynamic can actually create negative momentum out of debates.

For me, the bigger story was Michael Ignatieff and what a pleasant surprise of a performance he turned in. He shored up Tuesday's weak spots, offering more and attacking less. For the audience, he was the unknown rookie, and I suspect he surprised a lot of viewers with the quality of his French and with his manner. Five years ago, when Mr. Ignatieff was starting out in politics, a formidable Québécois friend of mine told me that the figure of an intello engagé, talking about ideas in decent Parisian French and wearing a well-cut suit, would seem familiar to Quebeckers in ways that might seem jarring to anglos. We'll see if something along those lines played out among francophone viewers last night.

Gilles Duceppe was strong - and had to be if the polls showing a steady softening of Bloc support are accurate. Jack Layton, sensing a possible breakthrough with progressive voters both federalist and sovereignist, pitched powerfully. (Bias: I also like his French. It's simple enough that I can follow it but has all these wonderful joual-y inflections that are fun to hear.) Add all that to last night's muted performance by Mr. Harper and Quebec is turning into a very interesting all-party free-for-all. Sort of like Winnipeg politics, but with a major added dimension. We'll see if BQ softness continues and busts it all open.

The other big thing - maybe bigger - is the English debate ratings, just out from the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement. The audience is up 26 percent from 2008. These numbers ought to put to bed what's left of the "Seinfeld Election" narrative. Good thing, too. The effect of a more engaged campaign will be sharper coverage, a tighter line to walk for all of the leaders and - the Liberal in me hopes - a healthy turnout on and around May 2. Come to think of it, the democrat in me hopes so, too!

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2011, 10:45 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

I agree, John, that Mr. Harper didn't score highly in the French debate. His French, while pretty good by normal anglophone standards, isn't as fluent as that of the other leaders. He had to learn it in the Toronto public schools, not Montreal or Geneva.

We have to remember that election campaigns aren't like figure-skating contests. You don't win by accumulating aesthetic impressions. What counts in the end is the translation of impressions into votes.

Fragmentary initial data suggest that Mr. Layton did the best in both debates relative to viewers' expectations and to the support level of his party. Logically, that should mean that the NDP should get a boost in the polls. It seems to be happening, but we'll have to wait a few days to see if that trend has legs. If it does, it's an important development.

From: John Duffy Sent: Thursday, April 14, 11:35 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Tom, you are feelin' your oats this mornin'! SFX: scary politician music. Visual: red filter. VO: " Michael Ignatieff, he didn't learn French figure skating in that Geneva ... for you!"

We are violently agreeing. You are so right about how little accumulated aesthetic impressions, in and of themselves anyway, count in campaigns. ( I mocked my own penchant for such things yesterday when I referred to you and I as members of the "National Political Theatre Critics Circle".) You are dead bang right that we cannot assume that anyone noted "a fading of language skills in hour two," or that they were even watching TV at the time. Indeed, the worst thing about the three opposition leaders in the English debate was how they seemed inattentive to their audience, and not just when it came to looking away from the camera. I think the biggest turn-off was how Question-Period-y it all seemed. Worse, the leaders other than Mr. Harper were making the usual Ottawa mistake of assuming that folks are paying attention and know what the heck leaders are referring to when they fire off their rhetorically elegant slogans.

This takes us to the broader campaign question raised by Mr. Harper's work on Tuesday night. The beltway-blather in the English debate set up perfectly Mr. Harper's positioning as the foil against all the "bickering" and "politicking" that folks have come to hate. Mr. Harper's performance amounted to a pitch that said, "The heck with politics. Vote Harper." The Prime Minister was at his best in porting this broad anti-politics argument into his defence against the contempt-of-Parliament finding. After all, he argues, the finding is just the usual partisan parliamentary jousting. Which leads to: "The heck with Parliament. Vote Harper." And what is the ultimate in parliamentary chicanery? Why, a coalition, of course! "The heck with a coalition of defeated parliamentary politicians. Vote Harper." Which leads to the closer: "The heck with these elections we've come to hate. Vote for a Harper majority and all this political crap gets out of your hair for four years." Which is pretty much what the Prime Minister said in both the English and French debates.

The argument is potent, if for no other reason than that its sheer audacity leaves Mr. Harper's opponents sputtering. They try to out-do each other with reflexive, if impassioned defenses of Parliament, the democratic process, sometimes even the permissible constitutional mechanics of minority parliaments if they are feeling particularly brave. But I don't think they've found the mark yet.

They should keep trying. There's a big tension here in this election: Mr. Harper obviously believes that running against the political system itself is his path to majority. That's a very smart thought wave. The opposition leaders obviously believe they can hook Mr. Harper on pushing this outsider play too far and offending core democratic sensibilities. That's why the government fell. Defending democracy is possibly the right response, but the defence cannot fall into the trap of sounding like sticking up for Ottawa, politicking and other loathed things.

I think the opposition leaders avoided the trap last night better than on Tuesday. They haven't quite found the language to call out Mr. Harper's audacious pitch just yet, and they are running out of time. But they might. If they do in a way that connects to the audience for the message that I think is building out there, this could become a very interesting election after all.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2011, 12:09 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

John, for once I have nothing to say. You've said it all, and readers should read it lovingly. Besides, I'm tired from just shoveling six inches of wet spring snow. Why does global warming have to mean more snow and cold weather? Maybe we'll debate that another day.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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