There's an episode of the TV political drama the West Wing where an adviser to the Republican contender attends a meeting to negotiate the format for presidential debates, agrees to nothing, then steps outside speak to the press. The point of the charade was to dispel the notion his candidate was reluctant to accept debates.
Perhaps a similar kind of spin-doctoring was in view when some Conservatives spread the notion they might demand five televised election election debates so that Prime Minister Stephen Harper can show up Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as a lightweight. Because one thing is for sure: Mr. Harper doesn't really want five debates.
That's a certainty because Mr. Harper is not a fool and demanding five debates would be foolish. This PM, obsessed with message control, isn't going to take on five risky TV debates unless he's running far behind and desperate to catch up. At the moment, he's not.
Nevertheless, the five-debate story is a little boon for the Conservatives. It furthers the notion that the PM has gravitas and Mr. Trudeau a lightweight whose weaknesses will be inevitably exposed. That alone is a job done. It also helps them if they choose to demand restrictive terms for the debates since they've already spread the notion they want more of them.
But there's no good reason for Mr. Harper to want a lot of debates – more than the usual two, once in each official language. Even if you buy the idea he'd gain by scoring debating points on Mr. Trudeau, he'd still have to worry about NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, the best debater of the three. The NDP leader would attack Mr. Trudeau, but Mr. Harper, too – he needs to win Liberal voters to gain.
But the point of TV debates is not to win debating points. Voters watch the show and then decide which leader they like. Winning an argument doesn't do much good if you turn off the viewers along the way.
And Mr. Harper isn't particularly good at it. His performances in past election debates have been middling, and mostly defensive actions. In 2008, he survived simply by absorbing attacks, and was perhaps lucky he wasn't hurt when he displayed little empathy during an unfolding financial crisis. In 2011, he was passable, but upstaged by late NDP leader Jack Layton's success in the French-language debate.
So it's by no means guaranteed he'd clean Mr. Trudeau's clock. The Liberal leader is a good-enough public speaker that he did it for a living; he can memorize a brief, and he's telegenic. And if he's the one who lands a few blows, on the PM, it will be an expectation-breaker that will upend the Tory assertion that the Liberal leader is a lightweight. For Mr. Harper, there's potential danger, too.
In fact, leaders usually become winners when they surprise. Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe won plaudits for English-language debate performance. Green Leader Elizabeth May, a newbie, got kudos in 2008, and in 2011 Mr. Layton came out of the French debate with momentum. But Mr. Harper isn't likely to surprise anyone by taking a few mild points off Mr. Trudeau. He'd have to win big to win at all.
(Ms. May, by the way, is likely to have a hard time getting into the debates this year. The TV consortium that organizes them is never keen on smaller-party leaders, and won't like the idea that including the Green leader could mean five- or six-person debates with Bloc Québécois Leader Mario Beaulieu and Jean-Francois Fortin, the leader of Bloc spinoff party Forces et Democratie. The Conservatives won't be keen on including Ms. May, and the NDP won't benefit from the presence of either Quebec party.)
If there's one leader who should want a lot of debates, it's Mr. Mulcair. That's partly because he has debating skills, but even more because he's in third place in polls, and voters outside Quebec still don't seem to really know him well. Debates offer him an invaluable getting-to-know-you opportunity.
But Mr. Harper? He's a prime minister who takes pains to control his message. He reads announcements from teleprompters in front of chosen backdrops. He avoids news conferences in Ottawa, except two-question sessions when foreign leaders visit, to limit questions from political reporters. In election campaigns, he tries to avoid meeting the general public, apart from partisans at rallies. This isn't a leader who will be demanding a series of TV debates that will give his opponents a chance to surprise him.