/You are a phony, you are a fraud: 5 takeaways from the Canadian debate

You are a phony, you are a fraud: 5 takeaways from the Canadian debate

Here are five key takeaways from POLITICO’s reporting team in Gatineau and Washington, D.C.:

Trudeau didn’t lose — but he didn’t win

Justin Trudeau had the most to lose; he’s had a bad few weeks since photos were released of him in racist makeup, and that came after a bad few months of revelations about the SNC-Lavalin scandal. So Trudeau played defense most of Monday night, as rivals on the left and right tried to tackle him. It was always going to be hard for him to assert his prime ministerial authority. He could either wrestle with his five noisy opponents or look on passively from a distance. His efforts to do both made him look average, not unstoppable. After initially holding back from the fray, in the second half of the debate Trudeau tried to turn provincial issues — like Quebec’s Bill 21 on religious headwear in government workplaces and the unpopularity of Ontario Premier Doug Ford — into national ones. It’s not clear it worked. Trudeau’s strongest moments came in explaining his “ambitious but feasible” climate policies. They were attacked relentlessly, and sometimes reasonably, but his opponents didn’t demonstrate their own plans were more workable.

Andrew Scheer passed the prime minister plausibility test

Conservative opposition leader Andrew Scheer — largely unknown internationally — succeeded on two fronts, which delivers him a points victory rather than a knockout blow against Trudeau. First, Scheer proved he can play a moderate when he wants to — something that is essential for him to win over suburban voters around Toronto. Canada’s Liberals, after all, want voters to lump Scheer together with Donald Trump. But Scheer was able to brush past Trudeau’s efforts to hammer him for his conservative past and present views on social hot-buttons like abortion. Scheer was also aggressive and successful in confronting Trudeau on his ethical and climate contradictions. He set up several exchanges that allowed voters to look at him and think “there’s my next prime minister.”

Scheer can also consider himself lucky that People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier was fairly ineffectual in attacking him from the right, given that his moderate pitch left him exposed on that flank. For all that work and good fortune, Scheer did not deliver a knock-out blow: in fact, he was weakest during what should have been his strong suit, the debate section on pocketbook issues. It’s still Trudeau’s election to lose.

Scheer weaponizes the blackface scandal

Scheer brought up Trudeau’s blackface scandal as Exhibit A of his broader case against the prime minister. While the controversy, amazingly, did not come up in the first French-language debate last week, Scheer used the Monday exchange to call Trudeau a phony who’s alienated the voters who believed in him. Remember: For Scheer to prevail Oct. 21 he needs progressives to abandon Trudeau for the NDP and Greens, splitting the vote on the left. So Scheer turned the blackface scandal into an assault. “He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on. Because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask,” Scheer said, alluding to how Trudeau, the self-proclaimed feminist, dumped female Cabinet members who crossed him. “Mr. Trudeau, you are a phony, you are a fraud, and you do not deserve to govern this country.” It’s notable that Scheer delivered his toughest shot right off the top; last week in the French debate, pundits concluded he’d had a weak start, when the most viewers are tuned it. Scheer’s poll numbers subsequently sagged in Quebec.

Populism is now part of Canadian politics

For decades, Canadian political parties have embraced multiculturalism, yet on Monday night People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier directly bemoaned current immigration levels. He said Canada adds “the equivalent of one Nova Scotia every three years.” He also winked at pro-Trump Canadians with an early reference to “Canada First.” But it’s unclear how much of a dent he truly made. Bernier’s national poll numbers are atrocious, and, speaking in his second language, English, he wasn’t nearly as polished as the mainstream Conservative, Scheer, whom he’s hoping to challenge. Scheer almost certainly got the better of their exchanges. And he raised real doubts about the authenticity of Bernier’s Canadian populist turn. Sheer alluded to Bernier once having been a Quebec separatist, and to his past as a small-government libertarian in a mainstream Conservative Cabinet before his recent, and sudden, mimicking of Trump. “I’m not sure which Maxime Bernier I’m debating tonight,” Scheer said.

Left-wingers won the battle of the minor parties.

New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party leader Elizabeth May landed more solid jabs against Trudeau, from whom they need to steal votes, than Bernier did in targeting Scheer. The debates hold outsize importance for minor parties because they’re rare opportunities to get in front of millions of voters on an equal footing as the major parties. On the left, Singh made sure to set himself apart from Trudeau on everything from taxes to indigenous relations. He also went in on the Liberals’ climate record and the Conservatives’ plan simultaneously, telling the voters they “do not need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.” Having had the worst year of all the minor parties in national opinion polls, Singh had the most room for improvement and he used it.

May took all other leaders to task on their climate plans — a Green Party leader would do that — but she made sure to turn directly to Trudeau to register her disappointment with his climate record, noting that Canada is far from achieving the carbon emission reductions scientists say are necessary to avert the worst warming of the planet. Her main point: Trudeau does not deserve to govern alone in a second term, and the Greens deserve to be the junior partner holding him to account. Her killer line: “Voting for Green MPs is your very best guarantee, Canada, that you don’t get the government you least want.”

Scheer did a better job pushing back his fringe threat. In an early exchange on immigration, he dropped one of several allusions to Bernier being a fraud. “You have changed,” Scheer told the self-styled populist. “Now you are making your policy based on trying to get Likes and Retweets from the darkest parts of Twitter.”

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