/William Watson: 20 minutes per leader — not much time for Canadians to decide who should run the country

William Watson: 20 minutes per leader — not much time for Canadians to decide who should run the country

One of CNN’s regular political panel mentioned after Tuesday’s three-hour, 12-candidate Democratic presidential debate that all the candidates are getting better. Forgive me for not remembering who said that. This was several hours into switching back and forth between the debate and the Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning. It may have been Steven Stamkos.

Whoever it was, he’s almost certainly right. But they’d better all be getting better. Most have been running for the greater part of a year. Businessman Andrew Yang — campaign theme: MATH (Make America Think Harder) — announced on Feb. 2, 2018. In the admittedly remote chance he makes it all the way to election day, Nov. 3, 2020, he will have been running for 1,005 days, almost as long as the entire Kennedy administration. He has been at it 20 months already.

A long audition is a very useful gauntlet

If you spend a good part of every day answering questions about why you want to be president, what you want to do as president and what you think about any of a thousand things — “Name a friend you have that people would be surprised to hear about” was the final question Tuesday night — then if you don’t get better at it, you’d better get out, as several underperforming Democrats have already done. In another series of questions, the septuagenarian candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, just back from a heart attack, were asked whether they had the stamina to be president. None gave the obvious answer, which is: Just watch me! If I can make it through the campaign, I can handle the presidency.

Democratic presidential candidates participate in the Ohio debate in Westerville Tuesday. A record 12 presidential hopefuls took part in the debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You don’t actually order troops around or send off squadrons of drones as a presidential candidate but you’ve got to put together a multimillion-dollar organization capable of quick thinking and instant response and, though you’re running for chief executive, not chief legislator, you’ve got to present a plausible policy platform. It’s a gruelling marathon (unlike all those non-gruelling marathons). But it does weed people out. Sen. Kamala Harris, a one-time media favourite, may be in the process of weeding herself out with her suggestion that Twitter should close Donald Trump’s account on the grounds he has been intimidating potential impeachment witnesses, which is a crime. Even her CNN questioners seemed doubtful. Not all voters are looking for judgment, of course — otherwise Trump would not be president — but for those who are, a long audition is a very useful gauntlet.

For her part, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s free ride on whether going to Canada-style single-payer medicare would cause Canada-style high middle-class taxes appears to be over. She says she doesn’t want to say because the Republicans would use her answer against her in the general election. But that’s a curious way to do bold social policy. You don’t talk about its true costs now because you don’t want to talk about them during the general election, either. It’s almost Trumpian in its gall. (Recall that Trump is the candidate who in 2016 criticized Mitt Romney for not releasing his tax returns early enough in the 2012 campaign to get the inevitable bad public reaction behind him but then didn’t release his own tax returns at all, presumably because they were so bad he could never do it early enough.)

As our own election campaign winds down almost all commentators are saying what a relief it is that it’s over and how dreary it has been

As our own election campaign winds down almost all commentators are saying what a relief it is that it’s over and how dreary it has been. It did start badly, with daily character assassination attempts, especially by the Liberals, based on unwise things other parties’ candidates had said on social media — which should cause all sensible people to wonder if they really, really need to be on social media. That onslaught stopped when the blackface photos came out. (For a terrific discussion of what we should and shouldn’t learn from them, see Peter Shawn Taylor’s new article in C2C Journal.) After that there has been lots of focus on both policy and the horse race. Unfortunately, the focus on policy is also largely a horse race: which party has the most generous offerings for which interest groups?

In terms of policy debate, Canadians who speak one language and didn’t want to listen to translators — who would? — had just two hours of exposure to six party leaders, which boils down to 20 minutes per leader, minus talking by moderators. The leaders of the three major parties each spoke between 3,800 and 4,000 words, which is the length of just five newspaper columns like this one. Not very much on which to base a decision whether to entrust the nation’s governance to a person.

The last thing we need is more electoral law. But if parties had to introduce their full platform in the campaign’s first week and then defend it in a series of debates over the following three weeks, Canadians could develop the kind of familiarity with the issues and candidates that many U.S. Democrats are gradually gaining.

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