Two Cross Border Debates

10/02/2008 04:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tonight, from the Arctic circle to the Rio Grande, millions of people across North America will be sitting in front of their televisions watching the great spectacle of democracy unfold. Two countries, Canada and the United States, will have the prospective leaders of their nations debate live on prime time TV.

That's right, in a fit of jealously, the Prime Minister of Canada, one Stephen Harper, has dissolved his parliament and called an election for two weeks from yesterday, and tonight, at the very same time as Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, will debate his four opponents.

This is the second of two. The first took place last night, and was entirely in French, one of the two national languages of the country. For three of the candidates on the dais, Harper, New Democratic nominee Jack Layton and Green candidate Elizabeth May this was rather difficult, as they are barely fluent. It is difficult to think quickly on one's feet in a foreign language, after all, and that's why most polls taken in Quebec, which is where 95% of French Canadians live, believed the two native French speakers Liberal Stephane Dion and Secessionist Gilles Duceppe came out on top. Also, with four leftists ganging up (politely, this is Canada) against a lone conservative, one would expect at least some of their punches would land on him rather than each other.

Tonight, the debate will be in English. This will put Dion and Ducheppe in the linguistic disadvantage, although Dion speaks it perfectly well. This will be more of a panel discussion than a debate, somewhat like the primary debates from a year ago when you had eight or nine people vying for attention.

One of the issues tonight is why two of the candidates are even there. It was purely out of shame that Ms. May was invited, because her party, the Greens, has been getting mostly less than ten percent nationwide at the start of the election, and Harper and Duceppe deemed it sexist not to invite her, despite the fact that Dion and Layton didn't think she should show up as she had no chance of winning. Ducheppe, representing the Quebec secessionists, isn't on the ballot anywhere but his home province, and many Canadians are annoyed by this as well, but there's nothing they could do.

The issues are very similar to those vexing us south of the border. The War in Afghanistan, alternative energy, gay marriage and the financial meltdown are all going to be major foci of the discussions, especially since everyone is encouraged to talk among themselves and challenge each other, not just spew sound bites at the audience. This means that, the three candidates on the left will have to not just attack Harper, but each other as well, as Canada has a "first past the post" system like we do down here. The polls show that nationally Harper's Conservatives are getting only 37% of the vote and everyone else is getting a quarter or less.

The Canadian public is mad about the timing of the debate because they too want to see Joe Biden and Sarah Palin go at it more than they want to see the same four usual suspects saying the same things they've been repeating for years (Canadian prime ministerial nominees can run in as many elections as they want, in fact all but Dion ran in the last election two and a half years ago). The Canadian media pays far more attention to American politics than America's does to Canada.

Another big difference between us and them, is that none of the PM candidates is expectations: No one expects any of the five to explode or break down in tears as they start speaking in tongues. Both Biden and Palin have spouted gibberish in the past and there have been calls for both candidates to be dropped from their tickets because of that. Also, which secessionism amazingly didn't come up in the French Canadian debate, (which was shocking as it was THE issue in Canadian domestic politics for ages), it might come up tonight on the American side, Palin?s speech before the Alaskan Independence party convention this year, was particularly obnoxious and has been mostly ignored as the media focused on her knowledge of the history of the US Supreme Court and Foreign policy.

Clearly everyone is eagerly going to watch this one for the first great gaffe of the century, something akin to Bob Dole's denouncing America for starting World War II during the 1976 debate. We can only hope.