Political Debates and The Big Con
In the brilliant 1973 movie The Sting, a group of con men, led by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, pulled off "the big con" when they stole thousands of dollars from mobster Robert Shaw.
Every time there's a big political debate and the media starts talking about how important it is and the effect it will have on an election, I shake my head and remember the movie.
I'm not saying the media is trying to deliberately con us, but we've seen far too many of these debates over the years to believe any of them will make much of a difference.
The Big Build Up
As we got closer to last week’s debate in Alberta, the media started banging the drum.
I heard a talkshow host wonder whether NDP Leader Rachel Notley could get UCP Leader Danielle Smith to lose her cool and force her to say something she would regret. One pundit I heard talked about whether one of the leaders could land “the knockout punch.” Then there was hope that statements made during the debate could influence some of the people who are telling pollsters they’re still undecided about who they’ll vote for in a week.
I shook my head. We’ve heard this before and it rarely happens. It’s the lead up to every debate. The hope always fizzles.
What about when Brian Mulroney went after John Turner for approving patronage appointments?
OK, but that was almost 40-years ago.
Yeah, but what about when John Kennedy wore makeup for a TV debate, but Richard Nixon didn’t. Didn’t that help Kennedy win the debate and the election?
That was even longer ago. Most people voting next week weren’t even alive then.
The Let Down
The reality is, very little is decided, or even influenced by any political debate on TV these days. It isn’t.
In last week’s case, both Rachel Notley and Danielle Smith are veteran politicians. They’re smart, experienced people and they’re coached by smart people. They’re well prepared, so hoping for somebody to say something stupid is like hoping for a week of rain in Alberta these days.
There’s normally no knockout punch either. They’ll throw a few jabs, but that’s about it.
There’s too much on the line for politicians to come to these debates unprepared. They repeat the same lines they use on the campaign trail and offer the same defences when asked probing questions from the media.
It really is the big con of the media. I’m not saying journalists are doing this on purpose to get ratings, but let’s face it, that wouldn’t hurt, would it?
Journalists are political junkies. They love political debates as much as most hockey analysts enjoy fights. Since this was the only televised debate in the Alberta election campaign, it was like Christmas Eve to many reporters. If they’re excited, they think you should be too.
Trump Was Right
Here’s the other thing that most journalists don’t seem to, or want to understand.
Things politically have changed drastically in the last generation or two. Time was when a politician said something stupid, the media jumped on the comment, quite often said politician ended up paying a price at the polls. Remember when Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield dropped the football? That wasn't a statement, but you get my drift.
That’s not the case anymore. One of the truest things Donald Trump ever said was “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any votes OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
He made that statement seven months before he got the Republican nomination in 2016. He was right. During one of the televised debates that fall he walked around behind Hillary Clinton like a creepy stalker, and was incredibly belligerent, but still won the election.
People watch debates not hoping to get information on who they should vote for, but instead they want to cheer their favouite on and hope they do well. How many people who watch debates are really and truly undecided? I think it’s far less than they’re telling pollsters.
People watch debates hoping their favourite mops up the floor with their opponent. They won’t be influenced by the opinions of journalists either. If somebody on CBC says they thought Notley won the debate, Smith supporters will say “Well that’s the CBC, of course, they’re going to tell us Notley won.” It’s the same the other way too.
What do debates accomplish? Not much, other than getting the political leaders and the party’s platforms in front of voters. That’s obviously a good thing. However, in this day and age of partisan politics, don’t try to tell me political debates decide anything.
It’s entertainment, just like The Sting.
Image credit: CTV