There are two debates on Canadian TV tonight. One is the U.S. Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. The other is the Canadian Leaders debate between Stephen Harper, Stephane Dion, Jack Layton, and Gilles Duceppe (but not Green Party leader Elizabeth May even though her party has as many candidates as the three national parties and more than Duceppe's Bloc Quebecois). I know which debate will be the better debate in terms of cut and thrust and intellectual discussion and I know which I'm going to watch. They aren't the same.
I'll be watching Biden and Palin. I know it probably comes as a shock but there are reasons. I know who I'm going to vote for in the Canadian election. It's mostly a case of holding my nose and voting for the candidate who isn't a Conservative (Harper's party) that is most likely to have a shot at beating the local Conservative candidate, although I am fairly sure that the Conservative in my constituency will win. My vote will be cancelled out by the vast sea of rural voters who move in lock-step for the Tory candidate. On the other hand I don't have a dog in the American political hunt – though as I've said, I like most Canadians would probably vote for the Democrats because they come closest to advocating policies that most Canadians hold dear (although in some ways they're a bit too far to the right). The thing is though that while the nature of the Canadian system means that Harper, Dion, Layton, and Duceppe are undoubtedly more skilled as debaters, the American Vice Presidential candidates are likely to offer greater entertainment value.
Part of this is simple. Harper et.al. are experienced at the art of debate. Every day in the House of Commons the Prime Minister faces questions from his political adversaries on any number of subjects. And then all of the leaders face a press "scrum" which in its own way is just as difficult because the press in Canada regards itself as an unelected opposition party woe be unto any Canadian politician who tries to replace the daily scrum with press conferences – it's been tried before with unhappy consequences...for the politician. An American politician wouldn't know what to do if faced with the combination of Question Period and the media scrum. If this process does nothing else it means that Canadian politicians are used to a more lively and open debating style during the televised leaders debates, in which they confront and question each other with little restraint on the part of the moderator. That's not something you're likely to see from the Vice Presidential debate.
What you are likely to see is some fascinating political theatre. There are some fascinating questions to be answered formed largely because of Palin's performance in her interviews with Katie Couric. Is she really as uninformed as she comes across in those interviews or, to use an example from the final season of The West Wing (which is increasingly relevant in this election season, as if the writers had a time machine and used it to create the script by referencing the future) was it all a ruse to create a depressed expectation from the public so that when she actually does face Biden she exceeds them.
As for Biden, how does he approach Palin? Does his knowledge and experience come across as a negative when debating the self described "Joe Six-Pack candidate?" (Palin to conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt: "It's time that normal Joe Six Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency.") Biden can't be arrogant or condescending to her for fear of being seen as bullying her. That's most assuredly a negative and a trap that male politicians reportedly face all too often when debating women candidates. And yet do "ordinary Americans" really see Palin as "Jo Six Pack" and better yet do they prefer that to someone with decades of experience in the fields that a Vice President, or more crucially a President, would face. Palin gives a good speech (written by others) but based on her performance in the Couric interviews and other extemporaneous public statements she seems to underperform, meaning that there might be circumstances where Biden, unleashing his considerable knowledge (and perhaps his own history of making embarrassing gaffes) could turn the audience against him.
And the audience is key. Earlier this week, when I was discussing the season and series debuts for this week I wrote about the Vice Presidential Debate, "All of the networks – well except The CW have that new reality show The Vice Presidential Debate. I hear it might be cancelled after the first episode though." I was being humourous – or at least trying to be – but at least one commenter (Andrew) thought perhaps that I was being ignorant. In truth though, the debates in the United States do mimic aspects of reality shows like American Idol, Dancing With The Stars or America's Got Talent. Victory in the debates is measured not by objective standards of who scored the most points either in accuracy or in flashes of rhetorical ability. Instead of ability is a question of who comes across as most popular as measured by tracking polls released within an hour or two of the event, and following the minute by minute variation in opinion from focus groups armed with little dials to tell us who is popular at a particular moment in time. In that, it's not unlike the way that TV shows are "fine tuned" by networks. In this way it is reduced to a reality show where popularity rather than ability is rewarded. There's a line in The West Wing episode "Mr. Willis of Ohio" in which Toby says that what he has gotten the representative from Ohio to agree to – sampling as a process to determine the population in the census could lead to dangers like polling rather than elections, to which Mr. Willis replies "It's okay by me. As long as it's not the same people who decide what's on television." We haven't reached that stage yet. Where we are however is that the techniques that are used to decide what's on television, not to mention who wins the big prize on reality TV shows, are being used to determine who wins political debates and in so far as those determinations by the media sway the political polls, the ones that tell us who is ahead and behind nation-wide and by state, then we are at least partially turning elections into reality – or perceptions or reality – shows. Whatever the case truly is, the Vice Presidential debate tonight promises to be good theatre.