Many were prepared for the first official Conservative leadership debate to resemble a WWE Smackdown. Last week’s unofficial edition quickly descended into a cacophony of snide remarks and name calling–– and that was without the inclusion of Patrick Brown, who has been warring with Pierre Poilevre on Twitter.
But Wednesday’s debate turned out to be something else altogether. In their quest to help the candidates avoid wanton verbal violence, the organizers and moderator Tom Clark turned the occasion into something of a game show. There were props! There were lightning rounds! There was a sad trombone “womp womp womp” sound that Clark played whenever a candidate broke the rules.
The result was a feverishly fast-paced format that prevented candidates from speaking more than two or three lines at a time. While the debate did not bog down in unproductive drama, it also failed to allow candidates adequate time to explain and defend their positions. There was no time for nuance and several big statements flew by unexamined.
Poilievre delivered the first major, and some would say shocking, new promise. If elected prime minister, he would fire Tiff Macklem from his role as governor of the Bank of Canada, alleging “he’s allowed himself to become the ATM machine of this government.” I wish I could share more about this pledge to remove the head of one of Canada’s most powerful institutions, but it was never followed up on by the moderator or other candidates.
A short time later, Brown stood out as the only candidate who’d advocate for and enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This is a position that deviates from that of practically every other leader of the Western world and would carry potentially severe ramifications for global and national security. But, again, the debate quickly moved on.
The night took an unorthodox turn when Clark began to grill the candidates on what they’re reading and bingeing on TV, as well as their favorite music. While seemingly superficial, let’s not forget an infamously bad answer to that first question more or less ended Sarah Palin’s political career.
Jean Charest couldn’t remember the title of the book he’s reading right now, but he knows it’s “about Russia.” Brown professed a love for John Grisham and is upset he’s currently too busy to watch the final season of Ozark. Leslyn Lewis binged Bridgerton in French to brush up on her language skills, and Roman Baber is an Amy Winehouse fan.
Poilievre, ever quick on his feet, either fine-tuned his answers for the audience or is, in fact, a walking caricature of himself. What’s he reading? Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Watching? A Trotsky documentary on Netflix about the “evils of communism.” Listening to? Albertan country singer Paul Brandt. The crowd ate out of Poilievre’s hand. So much so, he was docked 10 seconds of talking-time when his supporters booed Charest for alleging his abortion position remains unclear.
As the frontrunner, this was Poilievre’s debate to lose, which he certainly did not do. However, I wouldn’t say he won, either. The strict format undermined his signature attack dog style, which, for better or worse, prevented any standout moments.
The real fight was for the position of Poilievre’s main adversary. Until now, many assumed it was Charest. However, after this evening, I’m not sure that’s still true. Charest seems out of touch with today’s Conservative party and unable to find a tone and message that clicks. He’s calm when he should be angry, and angry when it’d make more sense to strike a neutral tone.
Rather, it was Brown and Scott Aitchison who presented the most compelling alternatives to Poilievre. Brown made a strong argument about his appeal to urban voters, was convincingly pro-choice and presented a rare Conservative climate measure that isn’t mumbo jumbo, arguing for climate tariffs on goods from China and India. Aitchison was the calm, measured unifier Charest thinks he is, without giving the impression of pandering that Erin O’Toole so often did, and was perfectly competent on every issue. However, he’ll need to progress beyond playing party peacemaker if he wants to win this thing. He’ll also need to learn French.
As for Lewis and Baber, they likely won’t be serious threats in the race, but for different reasons. Beyond Lewis being too socially conservative to be palpable to most general voters, she failed to present as confident and compelling, often stuttering on her answers. Baber came across as intelligent, compassionate and principled, but simply does not have the name recognition. This won’t be his time, but he’s one to watch in the future.
This was a debate that raised more questions than it provided answers, both when it comes to policy and who will emerge victorious in September. Ultimately, the most memorable thing about it will be the sight of candidates being humiliated into submission by the sound of a sad trombone.
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