Going into Wednesday night’s debate, Andrea Horwath had one goal: the Ontario NDP leader needed to present herself as a viable alternative for progressive voters tending towards McGuinty. She thus needed to score a strong hit in the debate.
One thinks of Jack Layton’s infamous coup de grâce in the federal leader’s debate. Ideally, Horwath would have struck a blow against McGuinty that would have rung a chord with her target audience: Ontario’s urbanite progressives who balance their vote choice between the Liberals and the NDP. Federally, Layton did it when he called attention to Michael Ignatieff’s dismal attendance record in the House of Commons. Ignatieff didn’t show up to vote 70% of the time, and Layton made him pay for it in the debate. Due in no small part to his savaging of Ignatieff, Layton soared on May 2nd.
Horwath needed something of this nature, but could not find it. None of her attacks firmly stuck to McGuinty, and on some issues she simply floundered. After a long tirade on his healthcare record, the best Horwath could do was ask meekly, “What about homecare?” And while homecare is a key concern for the pensioner vote she is so ardently courting, her inability to attack McGuinty on his healthcare record was a major mistake. It is an issue which McGuinty’s progressive base sees as vital in this election, and an issue on which she needs to credibly challenge the Premier in order to peel away his base. When she did land blows on the healthcare file, it usually involved anecdotes and individual stories; she landed no knock-out punch.
While it may seem I am being tough on Horwath, I will ease my criticism by saying that she came across as fresh, stood her ground against her opponents, and made very poignant attacks against the Premier without tripping up. Many pundits noted in the weeks prior to the debate that the position of her podium, between Hudak and McGuinty, was ideal. In terms of her campaign message, it certainly is. Her stump speeches and her ads focus strongly on the “third option” dynamic: that those tired of the “usual” choice between the PCs and Liberals can instead vote for her.
Interestingly, for someone seeking to position herself as the third option, she did very little to contrast herself from Hudak and McGuinty. At one point she made a brief reference to “the boys” having their usual squabble, but beyond that her contrasting was minimal. Her one truly successful moment of differentiation was on corporate taxes, which Ms. Horwath has pledged to increase. She pointed this fact out firmly during the debates, and progressive voters annoyed with Stephen Harper’s corporate tax cuts should take notice. Still, corporate tax increases will not win her the election. They also will not win her the Liberal votes she needs to steal McGuinty’s thunder.
In other ways Horwath found the right balance. She was critical of McGuinty while fronting her own plan to Ontarians. Though at first she stumbled over her words, and unfortunately seemed unable to look directly at the camera, she came across as attractive and fresh.
This debate may be crucial for her, for while the Leader of the Official Opposition in Ontario has historically had trouble garnering public recognition, the leaders of Ontario’s NDP have always had it worse. The debate gave her an opportunity to become a known quantity in this election, and she certainly needed it. She is not getting the media coverage she needs to improve her own visibility. I would not be surprised if polling showed that most Ontarians do not even know who she is.
Positive debate coverage in the coming days may make her more and more of a viable alternative. As progressives start to take notice, we may see her numbers go up, and Dalton McGuinty’s support subsequently weaken. But it is up in the air whether or not this will happen. McGuinty’s environmental credentials and healthcare record were two areas where she needed to score hits, but she could not find a crack in his armour. We will see how this missed opportunity plays itself out in the next few days.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.