Debates test candidates' mettle on the hot seat

Analyzing how presidential hopefuls handled public forums

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Candidates Debate

Over the last two weeks the candidates for next year’s University Students’ Council presidency have faced the student population in a variety of formats. But nothing is quite as revealing as the various opportunities for candidates to greet students in a public debate.

Starting with the USC general meeting two days after the election’s official start and ending with the irreverent debate moderated by current USC President Stephen Lecce, candidates have only a handful of chances to make their case to students on why they are the best choice to vote for.

For this year’s debate analysis, The Gazette enlisted the aid of Ninian Mellamphy, professor emeritus in the department of English, and Kimble Sutherland, USC president during the 1989-90 school year. Sutherland and Mellamphy attended three separate debates: the Media Forum, the Big Purple Couch debate and Politically Incorrect with Stephen Lecce.

In general terms, both panelists were quite impressed with the level of discourse and strength of the candidate’s public speaking skills. The panelists frequently agreed on many individual candidate issues.

What follows is the collected comments from both the panelists and our own thoughts on how the candidates performed in the debates, without dealing with specifics of platform points.

First off is Andrew Beach, whom both panelists liked.

Sutherland thought Beach possessed the best knowledge of the USC and was effective at getting his points across, though he came off as “too snarky” at times. Sutherland outlined one such case, where he said Beach committed the cardinal political sin of insulting voters when he expressed a frustration at students who don’t care about the race.

Mellamphy also picked up on some prickliness, noting Beach chose at times to jump in without providing much of a basis for doing so. This was seen in the Media Forum where Beach chose to question Singer on the legitimacy of Senate representatives in the USC and once again in the Politically Incorrect debate where Beach claimed he would throw coffee in the face of Singer if he won. Both cases were intended to be funny, but the humour fell somewhat flat.

On the bright side though was Beach’s smooth demeanour. He rarely dodged questions and even if some of his reasoning was faulty he did not back down from a line of questioning.

Though Beach is one of the top three debaters, his strong performance in the first debate seemed to be based more upon the comparative weakness of the other candidates. As the other candidates became stronger in this setting, Beach maintained his intensity level.

For Ashley Bushfield, her ability to clearly state how she felt about various issues was one of her strongest features. Once again among the top three debaters, Bushfield clearly showed she knew how to think on her feet and was well versed on the issues to be able to confront other candidates on the various subjects.

In the Media Forum, both Sutherland and Mellamphy noted her choice to embrace equality and inclusiveness issues.

“Bushfield presented herself as a champion of the marginalized students and a champion of green thinking too, but she left us wondering about her potential role in the wider political field,” Mellamphy said.

However, following the first debate, both panelists noted her ability to evolve. Her ability to effectively make a case for not being the “single issues candidate” was clearly shown when other candidates changed their choices to Bushfield when asked whom else they would vote for at the Big Purple Couch debate.

Candidates Debate

If any criticisms were to be made for Bushfield, it is how quickly she would assume a defensive position on issues. For someone who came off as strongly as she did, these cases marred an otherwise very polished candidate.

A candidate with less USC experience generally is a breath of fresh air to the campaign. The fresh perspective they can bring to the debates offsets their lack of experience with the USC. With this in mind, Ryan Cassidy did a fairly good job of embracing that role and using it to his advantage.

“[Cassidy’s] got a very nice way with the crowd,” Mellamphy said. “He looks them all in the eye and everyone likes him.”

But Sutherland explained this was not such a valuable thing.

“If you are going to run as the outsider candidate, then you must articulate a strong rationale as to why strong change is needed in the USC and why you offer that.

“Ryan has not done this on either point.”

But for all his faults, Cassidy was at least able to be honest with the audience " even to the point of fault when he claimed he was “not intellectually capable” of answering a question at one debate.

Unfortunately, the bottom line is that while Cassidy remained captivating during the debates, audience members generally did not leave the debates remembering anything he said.

One of the good things to be said about Tabitha Navratil’s debate performances is that she improved the most of all candidates. However, her reluctance to directly answer questions never really went away.

“Tabitha had some strengths but I was never sure about the clarity,” Sutherland said. “She was stronger [at the Politically Incorrect debate] but still not good on specifics.”

“One should not have to go to her website to remember her major plans,” Mellamphy noted.

Ultimately while Navratil had ample opportunity to do so, she failed to make a clear case to fully legitimize her candidacy.

Emily Rowe was able to take full advantage of a friendly crowd at nearly all debates. With a strong presence in the room, Rowe was perhaps able to get away with being more evasive on questions then she ought to have been. Though she showed evidence of heavy amounts of debate preparation, the debates were definitely not the best medium for her to disseminate her ideas.

“Rowe is too inclined to discuss her ‘passion’ for issues,” Mellamphy said. “As if politics was about having a passion for things. Politics is about trickery and effectiveness.”

“Emily is the one that keeps confounding me,” Sutherland admitted, noting her previous experience in the USC. “She should be a frontrunner ... [But] she has not taken her strengths and utilized them very well [at the debates].”

Rounding out the candidates is Ben Singer, a candidate both panelists liked.

Singer, similar to Beach and Bushfield, always provided a strong case for his answers and was direct in his responses.

“Next to Andrew, Ben has the best understanding of the issues and challenges facing the USC,” Sutherland said.

However, a slipup in handling a question about his campaign’s conduct at the Politically Incorrect debate may have been costly.

“Singer didn’t handle [the situation] well at all,” Mellamphy said.

“You have to take responsibility for what your volunteers say for you,” Sutherland agreed.

Share this article on:

Facebook | DiggDigg |

Copyright © 2008 The Gazette