Four years ago Senator Obama squared off against Senator McCain in a town hall meeting for their second debate. Four years later many things were surprisingly similar -- the President was again in a debate with a challenger who it appeared did not like him personally, again facing an opponent who was older than he, and again Canadians were glued to their seats.
President Obama won his first town hall debate against Senator McCain by making him appear ill-tempered and at times, unhinged. The President's constancy and even temper which have been assets for him in prior debates, were at times in question on Tuesday night when he appeared desperate to speak over Governor Romney. Still, the performance was sufficient for the President to emerge the victor and halt his opponent's dangerous momentum. Romney fumbled badly at times, particularly when saying in-artful things like, "Government does not create jobs", while running for head of government and promising to create jobs. Or referring to troubling sources of American energy as coming from "The Arabs," a point on which many around me visibly cringed.
This election is surprisingly close -- 11 battleground states (totalling 141 electoral votes) were up for grabs going into Tuesday's contest. In the 2008 elections Senator Obama was leading John McCain in every single one of those battleground states, and in some of them he was ahead by double digits. Now he finds himself behind or in a position too close to call, often within the statistical margin of error. Obama succeeded Tuesday in convincing many Americans in key states like Pennsylvania or Colorado to give his candidacy a second look.
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It is easy to understand why Americans cared about these debates -- it is their country, after all. It is easy to understand why 67-million Americans watched the first Presidential debate and a similar number probably watched the second. What is less easy to understand, and more interesting, is why Canadians did. Four years ago we were glued to our seats watching Senator Obama debate Senator McCain and four years later, at the pub where I watched the debate, dozens of 20-somethings were glued to their stools and attentive to televisions that would ordinarily be airing hockey games or UFC fights.
These folks (I checked) had no idea what a Pell Grant was -- only that they were in favour of more of them. They had no idea what either candidate meant by "clean coal" or how The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) would ration healthcare -- though they were in favour of that too.
Another group had no clear understanding of how the U.S. Senate worked or where precisely Libya was, with many thinking it was in the Middle East. And yet there they sat -- enamored with both speakers, transfixed and opinionated. There was to them one candidate who shared their values and one who did not, one candidate who they wished desperately to win and another whose every stumble they applauded.
Part of the Canadian attraction to American political discourse is of course the tremendous importance of our trade relationship. And another perhaps the historic nature of Barack Obama's Presidency, but neither of these reasons are satiating. Canadians are watching these debates because they are convinced that America and its values matter in the world, and that our proximity to those values means that by osmosis they are at least in part, Canadian values. When America behaves poorly we feel betrayed and embarrassed. When it appears ugly and intolerant, we feel the need to be its opposite, in part, because we believe that our mere presence to its North creates some compensating effect.
If Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper or Thomas Mulcair seek to inspire Canadians they would do well to take a page from our neighbours to the south and convince Canadians, no, tell them, that we are not just another country. That we are not another Norway or Iceland or some state in Europe that although it has a great reputation doesn't really matter. That Canadians have an important role to play the future of, as grand as it sounds, humankind. Americans already believe they do.