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Obama vs. Romney: Cracking down on the presidential debates

Graphic by Phil Waheed.

In a democracy, one would hope that an election debate would serve to further enlighten and inform the electorate.

Unfortunately, the U.S. presidential debates served more as populist entertainment than as a crash-course for undecided voters.

The second debate between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney took place at Hofstra University in New York.

In an interesting twist the debate was modeled on a “town hall” meeting with the audience asking the presidential candidates questions. The questions were all pre-approved by moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, making it a bit more controlled than an actual town hall meeting.

During the debate promises were made, fingers were pointed and the undecided voters who participated in the event were repeatedly thanked for their “important” and “great” questions.

Both candidates did well in the debate with neither making any particularly damaging mistakes.

Obama, whose lackluster performance in the first debate shocked many pundits and supporters, was back to his old self in this one. He was more confrontational with Romney, accusing him repeatedly of saying things that were “not true.”

According to USA Today, Obama claimed Romney was lying so many times during the debate, that Taggart Romney (eldest son of the Republican candidate) wanted to “rush down to the debate stage and take a swing at him.” If this contemplation of violence doesn’t demonstrate the excessively hyper-partisan nature of American politics, I don’t know what does.

Romney held his own without his son coming to his defense. As in the first debate, the former governor of Massachusetts looked confident and spoke with conviction. He scored political points by attacking Obama’s record on job creation and his management of the economy.

Needless to say, the fiery debate made for good political theatre.

Ultimately the biggest winners in last Tuesday’s debate were the fact-checkers, who were gainfully employed dispelling the many half-truths being spewed out by the presidential candidates. If viewers thought they would be more informed by the end of the night, they were sorely mistaken.

Obama claimed he could spend more on social programs by cutting military expenditures on wars in the Middle East. Unless Obama can multiply $100 bills like magic, there’s no way that cutbacks can save money. The United States has been borrowing money in order to finance the military; ending overseas conflict will not necessarily mean more money to spend on Medicare and public schools.

Romney tried to score points among women voters by saying he led one of the most gender-diverse cabinets in his state’s history. The presidential candidate said he wanted more women in his cabinet and had looked through “whole binders full of women” for female candidates to appoint to various positions. While he was patting himself on the back, The Christian Science Monitor was reporting that it was the nonpartisan Massachusetts Government Appointments Project that instigated this process in order to finally end the underrepresentation of women in government.

Questions also remain about the viability of Romney’s plan to cut taxes, which the Republican candidate touted during the debate. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center essentially said in a study that his numbers don’t add up.

That’s not to say that there weren’t ounces of truth mixed in with the doublespeak, but there was still an incredible amount of untruths and half-truths in the debate.

It’s disappointing that third-party candidates don’t receive nearly any coverage in the mainstream press. The main third party running is the Green Party run by Dr. Jill Stein. As long as mainstream debates do not allow third-party candidates in, voters will have fewer choices and American democracy will suffer for it.

Even though the American electoral process has its flaws, there is still one thing from the U.S. debates that Canada should strive to emulate in its own leaders’ debates next election. It quickly becomes apparent, after watching the presidential debates, that Canada should have multiple election debates like the United States has.

During the 2011 federal election campaign, we only had two leaders’ debates, and because one was in English and the other was in French, they covered many of the same topics just in different languages. Neither debate managed to get past general questions about governance or the economy to inquire about specific issues.

In Canadian debates, we’d probably never see questions about women’s issues or about how a leader would differentiate himself or herself from another. (Romney was asked, “how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?”)

While there are some things we, as Canadians, can learn from the U.S. presidential debates, we should also count ourselves lucky for the vibrancy of our democracy and for the diversity of voices present in our political landscape.

As for Americans, they need to wake up and realize that there’s a wealth of other options out there beyond the confines of the two major parties.

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A relationship between ‘first cousins’ is never a good idea

Photo via Flickr.

News emerged on Sept. 16 that Canada and the United Kingdom have reached an agreement to share embassies in some countries. While the agreement may help cut costs, its stated goal can also harm Canada’s image abroad.

The agreement, as it stands, doesn’t seem so threatening. Canada will allow British diplomats to work out of its embassy in Haiti. The U.K. will allow Canadian diplomats to work out of its embassy in Burma. In this way, both countries will gain diplomatic representation in countries where they previously had none.

What’s concerning is that the agreement could grow to cover a much longer list of embassies and consulates around the globe. Canada was once a colony of Great Britain and our foreign policy was once dominated by that country. Sharing embassies with our former colonial power certainly calls into question Canada’s independence.

Under the Conservative federal government, Canada has restored the “royal” moniker in the name of its armed forces. Premier Stephen Harper’s government also ordered all Canadian embassies to display a portrait of the Queen. Last year, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird drew criticism for having paintings by Quebec artist Alfred Pellan removed from the lobby of the Department of Foreign Affairs, only to have them replaced by the Queen’s portrait.

It feels almost as if this recent agreement to share embassies is but a small part of a longterm plan to recolonize Canada.

While Canada is regressing, it seems the rest of the Commonwealth is coming-of-age. Jamaica is considering abandoning the monarchy to become a republic, and Australia held a referendum in 1999 on whether to ditch the monarchy and elect its own president; the referendum was defeated, but at least they held a sincere national conversation on the subject.

In the meantime, our government has instead been trying to reassociate Canada with the U.K. out of some stubborn and misguided sense of nostalgia. And they’ve been doing so without any discussion on the subject. It is inevitable that the sharing of embassies will lead people around the globe to associate Canada more closely with the U.K. and Canada’s image will be hurt as a result, especially because of the differences in foreign policy.

The two countries’ foreign policies diverge in more areas than one might think. The last time Canada stored nuclear warheads for the United States was in 1984; meanwhile, the U.K. still has its own stockpile of 225 nuclear weapons. The U.K. joined the U.S. in the ill-advised war in Iraq, a war Canada refused to join in the absence of any mandate from the United Nations. Economically and politically, the two countries have different foreign policy objectives in a number of countries.

As Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former ambassador to Germany, told The Globe and Mail, “We have an incompatible brand with the U.K.” Canada, known for being a peace-loving nation will now be rooming with a former colonial power. Whether it’s fair or not, many people will now think to paint us with the same brush.

Far too many questions remain about the specifics of how such an agreement would work in actual practice. If the U.K. were to decide it wanted to cut off diplomatic relations with a country, where would that leave Canada if we shared an embassy there?

If our foreign policy interests diverged and we had competing interests in a country, what type of strain would an embassy-sharing agreement place on our relationship? Would Canadian diplomats working out of a British Embassy have the same power to work against the U.K.’s interests as they would if they were working in a separate embassy?

Although government officials have called it a largely “administrative” agreement, the plan calls not only for the sharing of facilities, but also for the sharing of staff. Will Canadians still have access to the same level of French-language consular services as they currently do in our own embassies?

This agreement is pretty harmless because it only covers two locations but if it was expanded to encompass many more, it could have real implications on Canada’s image. Not only do the optics of sharing embassies undermine the notion that Canada is an independent nation, but the agreement may well undermine Canada’s ability to meet its own foreign policy objectives in the future.

As is typical with the Harper government, this agreement was formulated under a shroud of secrecy. And what Canadians are now left with is a long list of concerning questions and few satisfying answers.

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