J.J. McCullough Headshot

Media Bites: 2 Many Candidates + 1 Boring Debate = 3rd Place Party 4ever

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The obvious question is why there had to be so many.

Five men and four women, all debating their comparative worthiness to lead the House of Commons' beleaguered third-place party. It was a little odd.

The candidates themselves, of course, offered no shortage of uplifting stuff about how Sunday's crowded stage was an inspiring tribute to the "wealth of ideas" and "variety of backgrounds" vying to lead this most dynamic, forward-thinking, and certainly-not-dying-at-all political franchise. Just look at this all-star cast and tell us we've got one foot in the grave, they challenged. Go on, try!

But actually sitting through a full two-hour debate with these people -- as I did this weekend -- offered a more obvious explanation: a great mass of people are running to head the Liberals simply because it's easy.

At the very least, it requires none of the attributes the Libs are constantly congratulating themselves for possessing: big ideas, fresh perspectives, pragmatic policy solutions to tough challenges, and so forth. Heck, it barely even demands a recognizable name, relevant political experience, clear communication skills, or a coherent philosophy (and no, The Secret's "want-it-till-you-get-it" doesn't count).

Once you learn the rules, in fact, running for Liberal boss is about as complicated as a round of Connect Four.

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Here, give it a go yourself:

It's you up there on the debate stage. Hair carefully coiffed and all the rest of it. A question comes from the nasally-voiced moderator: "As prime minister, what opportunities do you see for expanding the economic potential of Canada's natural resource sector?"

It's an intimidating question, and chances are nothing that immediately comes to mind is particularly insightful. You'll probably have some instinctive sense that economic growth is good, and it would be nice if our country made the right decision. So why not just say that? Everyone else did.

It's hardly a secret that 21st century political debates, especially ones featuring more than half-a-dozen candidates of the same party who basically agree on everything, are rarely "debates" in any honest sense of the word. More often than not, they're just an unglamorously glamorized pep rally, designed to spit slogans, bash the baddies, boost the brand, and stir a crowd without ever challenging it.

Yet even by this lame standard, the sheer number of inoffensive, non-committal cliches and talking-points spouted on Sunday made for a pretty grim afternoon.

Deborah Coyne promised "One Canada for all Canadians," while Joyce Murray advocated a "sustainable society." Marc Garneau vowed to pursue "long-term predictable programs," while Justin promised  "a new generation of leadership" for a party Martin Cauchon dubbed "the greatest democratic institution in the world." I took more notes, but they're stained with tears of boredom.

It didn't take long for all these nobodies to congeal into a single amorphous blob of bromides. As a guy who struggles with names and faces at the best of times, my heart bled for the furious live-tweeting journalists sitting around me, mashing their iPhones as they struggled to remember if the bland-looking dude with glasses who just made the quip about "balancing a sustainable environment with economic growth" was Cauchon or Bertschi, or whether the blonde woman who promised to "engage in meaningful dialogue with our First Nations" was Murray or McCrimmon.

Too flippant? There's a tendency among many, I notice, to regard such boring political events as an occasion for self-flagellation. If only I cared more, we say. I should really know these people, and it's my fault I don't. But with today's Liberals, audience boredom is almost aggressively inflicted.

If a lot of the candidates were unknown and uninteresting it was simply because they deserved to be. The never-elected-to-anything George Takach, for instance, introduced himself only as "a son of Hungarian Refugees" as if we already knew the rest. Karen McCrimmon, Deborah Coyne and David Bertschi felt no need to justify why lacking any past or present political title entitled them to run a G7 economy. Nor were they asked to.

Nor did any of the race's supposed "serious candidates" contest the many flat-out dumb and flaky ideas touted by the lessers, including McCrimmon's strange suggestion that electoral reform was a matter best addressed by starting two petitions -- one for, one against -- and doing whatever got more signatures, or Murray's airy proposal that the (unknown) costs of a national housing strategy could be paid with the (unknown) money generated by legalizing and taxing marijuana.

This is not serious stuff, but with one or two exceptions, the Liberal leadership Brady Bunch are not serious people. They are folks running to raise personal profiles, stoke egos, and have fun. And they're allowed to get away with it because theirs is a party that demands so little.

One of the hardest Liberal lessons of the past was grasping the fact that an infinite number of "number one priorities" -- as Paul Martin used to be fond of saying -- really means you have none. And it's equally true today that an infinite number of "prospective leaders," especially hopelessly unknown, unqualified, and unelectable ones, can actually insult voters rather than inspire them.

Far from the inspiring fantasy of renewal they envisioned, Sunday's packed stage of empty suits only emphasized that the historic sins of the Liberal past continue to haunt them today: unjustified pride in principles they don't have and talent they don't want.