“You had an option, sir”

The knockout punch delivered by Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney against Liberal John Turner in the English-language leader’s debate during the 1984 federal election.

Like most knockouts, this one happened because one fighter – in this case Turner – left his defences down. With Mulroney on the offensive over a series of patronage appointments that took place during the Trudeau-Turner transition, Turner replied that he had had “no option” but to make the appointments, presumably at the insistence of his outgoing predecessor. Mulroney seized the opening.

In high dudgeon, he bellowed with his mellifluous Irish ternor: “You had an option, sir.” A sputtering Turner didn’t know what hit him.

The rest, as they say, is history. The exchange would become the defining moment of the 1984 election and Mulroney’s landslide win.

In truth, debates – and elections – seldom turn on such singular KO moments. Other rare examples in Canada of poor debate performances affecting election results include an overly aggressive debate performance by Liberal Leader Bob Nixon in the 1975 Ontario election that cost him his lead; a canny, breakout turn by Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs in the 1988 Manitoba election that catapulted her party from third place to official opposition; and an inexplicable failure on the part of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to react to a jibe from the NDP’s Jack Layton about the former’s spotty attendance record in Parliament.

Just uttering “you had an option, sir” is enough to blanch even the most hardened political pro preparing for a debate. Most recently, in the 2014 Ontario provincial election, the phase was used to try and embarrass Liberal Party of Ontario Leader Kathleen Wynne’s decision to stand by her predecessor Dalton McGuinty [see Premier Dad].

The American counterpart to “You had an option, sir” is the infamous “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and you’re no Jack Kennedy,” used by Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen to dispatch his Republican counterpart, Dan Quayle, in their 1988 debate.

Like Turner in 1984, Quayle brought it on himself, in his case by foolishly comparing himself to John F. Kennedy. Given that this debate was between contestants on the bottom of the ticket, it wasn’t enough to prevent a Bush-Quayle victory. (Indeed, a contributing factor to that victory was Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis’ own debate performance – in particular his bloodless reaction to a question on capital punishment that tastelessly asked if he would change his opposition if his wife were “raped and murdered”).

Image Source: CBC Archives

Suggested by Parli Contributor Jason S.

See More Parli