I’ve been absent for a while, and am still pretty busy but will endeavour to write more often through the election cycle.
This post is just to correct a misunderstanding that persists in some circles about the debate between John Key and Phil Goff, hosted by The Press in Christchurch (highlights here). The conventional wisdom, with which I agree, is that Goff performed very strongly through the first half (re Christchurch), and into the second half (on more general topics) up until the point at which Key challenged him on Labour’s costing, at which point he lost it because he simply couldn’t rebut the allegation that there was a $14 billion deficit hole in Labour’s policy platform. Labourites, however, have complained that this was unfair, that Key’s numbers were made up, that Goff couldn’t produce figures that hadn’t been properly worked out, or that nobody watches the debates anyhow so it doesn’t matter. These claims might be right; some of them certainly are. But it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference: the task was to win the debate, and Goff did not win the debate.
This is the point, though: it doesn’t matter if a leader’s debate is watched by only 100 people if as one of those people is the political editor of a major news outlet.
Winning a leader’s debate in itself doesn’t change people’s minds. Few people watch them, and most who do have already made up their minds and will interpret even the most epic fails as wins (go back and read the Daily Kos response to the ‘Dean Scream’; or for a more immediate example, see John Pagani). There’s a bunch of research been done on this, and the headline finding is that debates have a significant influence only on the politically naÃ¯ve. For the most part, leader’s debates are about arousing the true believers and persuading the pundits, who will then report the outcome of the debate, which in turn provides signals to the voters about who has advantage, momentum, mad chops, political competence, and so on — including but not limited to who has the better policies. By failing to show John Key (and the rest of the nation) the money, Goff lost the debate, which puts him on the losing side in terms of all those factors — compounding an existing and well-documented leadership deficit. It doesn’t matter if he’s right — if he can’t demonstrate he’s right we’re entitled to believe he’s not. It’s not as if Key shut him down — he was afforded very generous opportunities to make his case, and he failed (or refused) to do so.
What has happened with the “$14 billion” over the past 48 hours is the system working as intended, filtering our presumptive leaders for basic political and institutional competence. Because we are entitled to demand basic political and institutional competence from our leaders. Not only that, we should demand it; and the fact that people — Labour activists in particular — have not demanded it this past 3 years is part of why we’re looking at another three years of John Key as PM.
John (and Jordan Carter, the MPs, Phil himself) and others who have picked apart Key’s back-of-the-envelope figures, insisted that it was more responsible to check and recheck the PREFU numbers before saying anything miss the point of a debate — it’s about winning under the hot lights of the public glare, not about being technically correct in the cool light of the following Friday. You have to be right enough that you don’t look as if you won on false pretences, but the task is to win, and to maintain the momentum of the campaign, the aura of leadership.
Goff failed. Barring some massive set of exigencies, that’s probably the election.