In Mulcair’s debate performance, an echo of Ignatieff

When you’ve got a reputation as a brawler, there’s an advantage in softening your image. This is especially true in politics.

Stephen Harper has never really been anyone’s idea of a teddy bear. So it’s easy to forgive the Conservative brain trust for putting him in a sweater vest lo those many years ago for a series of television spots introducing his softer side to the country.

It’s in this vein that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair seems to be have taping for his debate performance this week. Labelled, perhaps unfairly, “Angry Tom” from his days in the Quebec legislature, Mulcair has a bit of a reputation for using his rhetoric as a bludgeon.

So, there he was Thursday night, behind the podium. Asked a question by the moderator, he’d start answering while still looking away from the camera now zooming in on his face. Then, his head would swivel toward the camera, angling slightly as he turned. His eyes opened wider. His mouth opened to Standard Reassuring Grin 34-B, before finishing his answer. 

There was something in the eyes that just wasn’t right.

Screenshot via YouTube

Screenshot via YouTube

Mulcair seemed to have been given the advice to give his best “smize.” That is, his smile was to start with the mouth, but it wasn’t to stop there. It would have to stretch all the way to the eyes, those vaunted smiling eyes, where it would really sell his inner bon vivant.

I say advice, because he didn’t quite pull it off. It didn’t look like a facial expression that came without a great deal of coaching and practice. Sure, his eyes were smiling. But it wasn’t the Irish-eyed twinkle you’d get from a guy like Brian Mulroney. It seemed more appropriate for the Cabbage Patch Doll Horrorshow Factory & Assembly Line™. 

But, the NDP leader isn’t the first to fall prey to such weirdness.

Four years ago Michael Ignatieff and several of his Liberal MPs set a similar tone.

It was a cold March day and Stephen Harper has just announced, from a podium set up outside the governor general’s residence, that David Johnston had agreed to dissolve Parliament. It was election time.

Ignatieff and his team decided to launch the Liberal campaign in front of Parliament, in front of the Peace Tower. Outside a handful of scribes and a few TV cameras waited for the leader to make his speech and then shout a few questions at him.

I was sent there, green as hell, to hold a video camera, and generally just soak it all in. I’d just started an internship as a parliamentary reporter a week or two before, my editor wanted me to get my feet wet, but I wasn’t yet to be trusted gathering actual news.

When Ignatieff arrived at the lectern, draped in an too-big overcoat, with a bright red scarf framing a blue shirt, open at the collar, he launched into a statement explaining how the election was the start of something big, the start of Canadians’ chance to show the Tories how upset they were that “this place,” Parliament, was disrespected by the government.

The really big focus of his statement was that if he became prime minister, it would be at the head of a “Liberal government.” He repeated the phrase several times, putting extra emphasis on the Liberal. Coalition talk was a big thing at that point and Ignatieff made it very clear—he said “clear” again and again to hammer home how clear he was being—that he had no interest leading a coalition government.

Not that it was going to do him any good. The first reporter’s question was about whether he would form a coalition. He gave a pretty good answer to that, but then he couldn’t help himself and he kept talking and talking. Five sentences too late, he finished his answer and waited for the next question.

The next reporter asks the Liberal leader if all the coalition talk has taken root, and if all this very clear talk “is it too little, too late?” Ignatieff tried a different tack this time, he decide to laugh. Not a gentle chuckle, but a real, deep belly laugh, one which would come from nowhere.

It became entirely surreal when all the Liberals around him joined him in full-gale laughter in the next instant. Somehow stifling his new-found giggles, Ignatieff says, “That’s a genuinely funny question.”

The answer to the question never really registered. Even now, watching the video again, I can’t focus on what he’s trying to say. I’m still too caught up in the weirdness of this group of people all gamely playing along with the farce that the question was genuinely funny and they were all genuinely laughing. 

(You can watch the whole thing for yourself, the fun starts at about the 8:00 mark.)

It wasn’t clear that would be the case then, but the Liberal leader never really did manage to connect with voters the 2011 campaign. His faults as a politician didn’t start or end on the steps of Centre Block that day. But that moment was telling. 

Mulcair is a reasonably gifted politician, but when the softie act fell flat Thursday, it took a fair bit of momentum from him. Nobody won the debate, but Mulcair came away diminished, in part because he didn’t come off as terribly sincere.

It’s a small thing, something at the margins of the broader issues, but this election has so far played out around the margins. If he’s going to win this thing, Mulcair can’t be ceding that ground.