I happened to be in Boston last weekend for a conference, which is how I ended up watching the first U.S. presidential debate Friday evening (September 26) on a big-as-my-house widescreen TV with several hundred of my new closest friends in the atrium of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

It was fascinating, and not just because of what was happening on the screen. Americans take their politics—especially this presidential election—seriously in ways we Canadians might find hopelessly naïve, or perhaps hopefully optimistic. They believe this election matters, that there is a clear choice between the two main candidates and that they, as individual voters, can make a difference.

Friday night’s audience was mostly young and predictably Democratic, but they seemed equally, earnestly attentive to what John “My-Point-Is” McCain had to say too. They cheered at some moments, groaned at others. Most stuck it out for the entire 90 minutes of often repetitive and entirely predictable point-making by the two candidates, then stuck around after to talk among themselves about what they’d heard and what they thought it all meant.

Would that it we in Canada cared as much—or believed as deeply.

When our own first formal televised prime ministerial debate takes place Thursday evening, more than a few of the political junkies among us will guiltily tune into the American networks instead, hoping to catch the spectacle of Sarah Palin playing the role of either the deer in the headlights or the train in the train wreck in the first and only debate between the U.S. vice presidential candidates.

That debate will almost certainly be more entertaining than our Canadian leaders’ debate and it could, arguably, be more important to us. Sarah Palin could end up heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world, which would mean the oldest man ever had been inaugurated president— which has to be a far scarier thought even than Stephen Harper with a majority government. Or Stephane Dion reducing the Liberal party to two-seat, Kim Campbell territory. Or separatist Gilles Duceppe clutching the balance of power in Canada’s federal parliament again. Or Jack Layton as official opposition leader. Or Elizabeth May with a seat in the House of Commons.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we have so many wannabe prime ministers. How do you have a meaningful debate among five competing party leaders? In two official languages? In a country deeply divided along regional fault lines.

Worse, our issues often seem beyond our leaders’—and our— control. Will a Canadian carbon tax really save the world from climate change? How much will it matter whether Stephen Harper or Stephane Dion speaks for Canada on the current global financial meltdown?

To make matters worse, not one of the contenders who want to lead us can claim to be as oratorically gifted, as inspirational, or certainly as transformational as Barak Obama.

And yet…

Our election does matter too. Though the ideologically fuzzifying effect of minority governments sometimes make our political parties seem indistinguishable, and the accompanying tendency of our political leaders to say one thing to get elected and do the opposite after they’re in makes choosing one over the other seem a fools’ game, we do know there are still real differences among the parties. And, more particularly, between Stephen Harper’s Conservatives on the right and everyone else on the centre and left.

If Stephen Harper wins a majority, our world will change.

This election does matter. And so do the leaders’ debates. Which means we should watch them even if Sarah Palin will be more fun.

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