Who won last night’s #ONpoli debate?

  • Doug Ford needed to (a) be standing at the end of the debate, and (b) keep his cool.  He did both.  Win.
  • Andrea Horwath needed to (a) remind people that she existed, and (b) sound like she knew what she is talking about.  She did both.  Win.
  • Kathleen Wynne needed to (a) not sound like a Deputy Minister and (b) remember she is fighting for her life, and kick the living shit out of her two opponents.  She did neither.  Fail.
  • TV is 70 per cent how you look.  Doug looked nervous at the start, but less so as the show went on.  Andrea looked like she was having fun.  Kathleen looked like she was the meat in the sandwich, stuck between two opponents – and her suffragette outfit made her looked washed out on the CITY-TV set.
  • TV is 20 per cent how you sound.  Doug sounded scripted at the start and the finish – he (like most populists) is better speaking extemporaneously.  Andrea sounded like she’s been preparing for four years for that debate, and totally confident.  Kathleen sounded like a bureaucrat.
  • TV is 10 per cent what you say.  Doug wanted to gently suggest Kathleen is a fibber (“disingenuous,” six million times) and remind everyone about the Hydro exec schmozzle (“six million dollar man,” six million times).  Andrea said she had ideas – and people like ideas. Kathleen said stuff you’d expect a policy wonk to say (see above).
  • Winners: Doug won by not losing.  Andrea won by (finally) being seen and heard.
  • Losers: CITY-TV’s constant cutaways were irritating and let the politicians off the hook.  The production was a bit amateurish.  Meanwhile, Kathleen lost because she didn’t connect.  Don’t believe me?  Check out my Highly-Scientific™ Poll, above: my dog Roxy topped her!

My take on the first #onpoli debate in tweets

You’re welcome.

Pollara’s Don Guy: Horwath’s NDP “has a lot of room to grow,” Wynne’s Liberals “aren’t even close to bottom yet”

That’s a quote from Dalton McGuinty’s campaign genius Don Guy.

Abacus just found something similar – PCs down 5, NDP up 5, Libs going nowhere.

Here’s Don – who, full disclosure, has been one of my best friends for two decades, and under whose leadership Pollara is a Daisy client supplier – making some observations that should make the Wizard’s blood run cold:

Don Guy, who succeeded Michael Marzolini as owner of Pollara last year and who was a chief of staff to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty a decade ago, said the poll results are “pretty tough, if you’re a Liberal.”

Guy said the last time he saw polling perceptions as bad as what he’s measured for Wynne was in Brian Mulroney’s last days as prime minister. “The last time we saw this kind of unrealized potential for the NDP was in 1990, an election it eventually won. And the last time we saw this kind of alignment on leadership attributes and issues in favour of a PC leader was Mike Harris in 1995,” when Harris’s Progressive Conservatives defeated the one-term NDP premier Bob Rae.

None of this surprises me, really: (a) I’ve felt for more than a year that Kathleen needed to take a walk in the snow, (b) her expensive campaign Wizard and his Board should be fired, and (c) there needed to be an aggressive recruitment of new ideas and new blood. They didn’t do any of that.

The writing, as Pollara and Abacus make clear, is on the wall. The only question is whether the writing is orange or blue.

How to win tonight’s #ONpoli debate

What not to do.

From The War Room, available at all fine bookstores near you:

That’s Big Truth number one. Here’s Big Truth number two: make certain that the story that dominates the discussion is your story. Always. Here’s why: no matter how nice your opponent looks — no matter how articulate, no matter how charming — he or she can’t win if your message is the dominant theme of the campaign.

Televised leaders’ debates — like the one in which Reagan clobbered Carter — show us all why this narrative stuff is so crucial. TV debates give candidates a chance to stress basic campaign themes, and in front of what is usually the biggest audience of the campaign. They also let candidates depict their opponents’ campaign message in an unflattering way. Contrary to what some media pundits claim, debates are not about defining moments (although, admittedly, Reagan’s “are you better off” line was certainly a defining moment). Debates are about ratifying your side’s issues — and the issues in the campaign — and looking good at the same time. They’re not about defeating the opposition’s claims, proving something, or answering reporters’ questions, either. They’re about getting your story — your spin, your message — heard by as many people as possible. Full stop.

Now, keep in mind that a single night’s debate is not going to change voters’ minds about the key issues. To win, you first develop and then repeat your campaign’s theme. That’s it, pretty much.

The most successful presidential and prime ministerial performers enter debates with a single clear message they wish to get across — and they use questions and interruptions to return to, or highlight, their single key message. As Dick Morris has noted, a simple way to measure success is to count the number of debate minutes devoted to your key messages (eg. for a liberal like me, health or the environment) and not the opposition’s (eg. for a conservative, tax cuts or “getting tough on crime”). You win when your story has taken up the greatest number of minutes. Before they head off to bed, you want the people who tuned in to conclude that your guy or gal is humble, energetic, trustworthy, passionate, positive — and that he or she is “fighting for me.”

Losing, on the other hand, is easy. If a liberal guy or gal performs well on an issue like “getting tough on crime,” and the other side doesn’t, it doesn’t matter that the liberal did a fabulous job presenting his or her case and sounded like the best debater in the history of planet Earth. The “getting tough on crime” issue is their issue. The other side will always sound more credible when the subject matter is their issue.

During the 2000 Canadian election campaign, which saw Liberal leader Jean Chrétien win more seats than he won in 1997, I was part of a little group that helped to prepare him for the TV debates. In the mock debates, I played the role of Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, which was quite amusing. Chrétien certainly thought it was.

I sat in on quite a few meetings of the debate preparation group, and I didn’t find a lot of it particularly helpful. A couple of the people in the group were idiots. And a lot of the people gathered around the table and talked a lot about their theories on defining moments and so on, but I thought it was a lot of crap. To me, defining moments just happen, like when you win the lottery. You don’t spend time planning a lottery win. Either you win it or you don’t.

I was frustrated, so I wrote a little memo, and I gave it to Jean Chrétien. I told him that it was about telling people what his story was, telling the story, and then reminding people that he just told them his story. I also wrote another very brief memo, part of which read like this: “Our key message is about choosing between two messages, one of which is extreme. It is choice between a reasonable and reasoned Liberal alternative on taxes (big, and better for moderate and middle income Canadians) and Stockwell Day’s extremist choice (tax cuts which are only better for a select few); between a Liberal alternative on health care (well-funded, national standards with all that implies, etc.) and Day’s version (privatized, ten-tier, no national enforcement of standards, etc.); and other issues, as necessary.”

Health care, education, and the environment were all good things to talk about, so that’s what Chrétien did, even though the other party leaders were attacking him like a pack of crazed, rabid dogs. Chrétien, meanwhile, effectively avoided talking about things that were bad for him. Stockwell Day, however, persisted in going on and on and on about things that were unhelpful to his cause — to the point, even, of repeatedly holding up a little handmade sign in the English language debates, to protest that he had been misunderstood about health care. “No Two Tier Health Care,” it said. It looked like it had been written in crayon. At that point, there was only one way we Liberals could have managed the dialogue better, and that would have been to make up the little “Two Tier” sign ourselves and request that Day hold it up on TV.

Political storytelling — political spinning — requires some intestinal fortitude. It’s important that one doesn’t whine, and former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day had a penchant for whining a lot. Politics is a nasty, unpleasant, mean-spirited business, which is presumably why some of us are drawn to it. (Many of us are nasty, unpleasant, and mean-spirited people.)

Stockwell Day had come from my home province of Alberta, which has been properly likened to a one-party state. Once on the national scene, he quickly distinguished himself as a youngster who could not take a punch without complaining about it to the school principal. (In that way, he resembled future Liberal leader Paul Martin, but with a great deal less formal education.) As we continued to try and ensure that our issues dominated the political discussion, a thought occurred to us: we were dealing with a great big, wet, bona fide fish here. So we kept putting interesting things at the end of our fishing line — things like health care, or pensions, or abortion, or referendums. And Stockwell Day, being a hungry little fish, could not resist taking the bait. He’d complain about all this, sure. He was being misconstrued and misquoted and misunderstood, he whined, by the worldwide Liberal conspiracy. It was unfair. It was mean.

“Call off your attack dogs, Mr. Chrétien,” was one favourite headline — which we promptly enlarged and posted on the war room wall.

To the very end, however, Stockwell Day couldn’t resist blathering on and on about his own negatives. And his negatives, of course, were our positives. That, as my mother likes to say, is how you get your ass kicked on Election Day. Stockwell Day helped us get a bigger share of the popular vote than we did in 1997. That isn’t easy to do, but he did it.

To recap: facts tell, stories sell. And when you’ve got a winning story, stick to it. Don’t talk about the other guy’s story.



Column: my Hill Times story about Gordie


That’s what we called him – or I did, at least. When someone has been one of your closest friends for almost four decades, calling him anything else didn’t seem right.

It’s not that he didn’t have a lot of titles that could have been appended to his name, however.

He was the Chair of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. He was also the House of Commons Chair of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group. He was a member of the Trilateral Commission.

He had other titles, too. He was the Official Opposition’s representative on the top-secret National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. Before that, he’d been the powerful Chief Opposition Whip. And, of course, he’d been the elected Member of Parliament for Leeds-Grenville – later, Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes – five times between 2004 and 2015. In 2006, 2008 and 2011, he won with more than 60 per cent of the vote.

But I called him Gordie. Sometimes – like back in our Carleton U. student council days – we’d actually call each other “Senator.” Back then, we’d sit around Bree’s Inn at Carleton’s Residence Commons, drinking cheap beer out of stubbies, watching videos on MTV, and laughing about how we’d all get appointed to the Senate and practice taking naps.

Gordie, Jim Watson, James Villeneuve, Annie Smith and me.

L to R: Gordie, Annie Smith, Jim Watson, James Villeneuve, some guy.

Back then, back in 1983 or so, there was a gang of us. Jim Watson, who would go on to be Ottawa’s Mayor. James Villeneuve, who would become Canada’s Consul General in Los Angeles. Bob Richardson, who would later be Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Leader of the Opposition, a pollster, and an advisor to lots of powerful politicians.

Me, I was destined to be Carleton’s student association president – the highest office I’d ever achieve. But not before I got Gordie’s blessing.

The other guys knew him, because they all lived in Glengarry House, the big student residence building at the South end of campus. I was in Russell, so I didn’t know Gordie that well.

We had decided to run a slate in the 1983 Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) election. We were going to call it No Name, after the generic black-and-yellow food line that university students all ate, because it was cheap. We were mostly Conservatives and Liberals, unhappy with the way the so-called Left had been running things.

So I was summoned to meet with him. If I wanted to be president, I had to get Gordie onside.

Gordie had run Jim’s successful campaign to be the residence association’s president. And he already had a seat on Carleton’s student council. As a result, he was already a big wheel at Carleton.

At our meeting, he was wearing his Beaver Canoe sweatshirt, and he wasn’t smiling. James and Jim and Bob were there, too. All of them kept a straight face, and peppered me with questions about what I’d do as president.

Then Gordie said to me: “We think Carleton should be declared a communism-free zone,” he said. “What do you think about that?”

“Well,” I said, not sure if he was serious or not, “I don’t think that would be constitutional, but we could give it a shot, I guess.”

Gordie burst out laughing. “I’m just kidding,” he said. “I’ll support you.” And so began a decades-long friendship.

After we won the biggest landslide victory in Carleton’s history, Gordie and I did make the communism-free motion, however. We did it to outrage the graduate students, and it worked.

So, too, other stuff we did. My God, we had fun. We were idiots, some days, but we had fun.

I went off to law school in my Calgary home, and Gordie went off to serial achievements in his Gananoque home: running his family’s businesses, serving as a town councillor, acting as president of the Thousand Islands-Gananoque Chamber of Commerce, and chairing the St. Lawrence Parks Commission.

I ran for Parliament in 1997, and lost by many votes. He ran in 2000, and lost, too – but only by fifty-something votes. When he tried again, in 2004, he won big. He wouldn’t look back.

Over the fourteen years he would serve as a Parliamentarian, we would get together as often as we could. We’d talk about our kids, our previous marriages, our Carleton salad days – and politics, of course. It didn’t bug him – and it didn’t bug me – that we belonged to different political tribes. We’d just call each other “Senator,” and we’d laugh.

One time, after I set up my Daisy Group firm in Toronto, Gordie called me. He needed help. The Ontario lottery people wanted to move the Gananoque casino to Kingston. So Gordie and Ontario PC MPP Steve Clark pushed the local municipalities to hire us to fight the casino plan. For Gananoque, Gordie told us, it would mean disaster – the loss of many jobs and plenty of services.

We got to work. But the Gananoque casino was saved, in the end, by Gordie alone – he came up with the idea of commissioning a poll of Kingston residents. It would find that there was massive opposition to moving the casino there. The casino would stay put.

Another time, over breakfast at the Royal York in Toronto, I told Gordie I was pissed off Stephen Harper hadn’t put him in cabinet yet. He deserved it a lot more than many of the idiots with “P.C.” after their names, I told him.

Gordie shrugged. It didn’t bug him, he said, and I could tell he was telling the truth. He didn’t need any honorific alongside his name. He was happy doing what he was doing. He was happy just being Gordie.

A few days ago, Gordie called me on my cell. He’d just gotten back from seeing James out in L.A. “Hey, Warren,” he said. “It’s your favourite MP from Leeds-Grenville Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes and I hope you’re doing well. I was down in L.A. to see our friend James. The other day, we were bringing your name up – and we didn’t even take it in vain!” He laughed. “Anyway, give me a call if you get a chance.”

I didn’t. I was busy. It slipped my mind – until last Wednesday morning, when I got word: Gordie had died of a heart attack at his desk on Parliament Hill, working for his beloved Gananoque.

I hadn’t called him back. I hadn’t gotten a chance to tell him that I loved him like a brother, and that I was so proud of him, and that – even if we never got to be Senators together – he’d always be something way, way better, to me.

Which was Gordie.

She always sounded better in the original German, anyway

Good on Doug Ford.

Because, you know what should make you want to “vomit?” It’s crypto-fascists like Tanya Granic Allen, who hate other people simply because that’s the way God made them. That is what should make you want to throw up.

Wynne’s war room believed that this lunatic’s homophobia would cause major damage to Doug Ford. By moving so quickly, and decisively, Ford has instead ended up looking like a true progressive conservative.

Like I’ve been saying to people for a long time: Doug Ford is going to surprise you.