Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Ghost of Karl Rove

So … Canada has a political crisis of sorts. This is not a “powerplay” and it is not a highjacking of Parliament. There actually are important issues that are worth considering and this crisis gives us the opportunity to think about them. I’ll begin by speculating on “what happened” and, hopefully, get to thinking about what might happen in future blog.

What happened is actually pretty simple. It was not a bunch of “outs” who decided that they were better off together and ganged up on the “ins” who legitimately won an election. What happened as a shift in the way Canadian party politics operated that forced the opposition parties to group together. Let me be clear: they had very little choice. Their options were shrunk to watching their own funerals or finding some way to work together. The occasion for this was not the economic crisis – although I accept the legitimacy and sincerity of all parties’ members concerns about this - -but Conservative efforts to amend the election financing provisions of Canadian law. One might recall that under changes introduced by the Chretien administration and then modified by Harper, large scale corporate donations were eliminated in favour of small scale individual donations. To compensate for lost resource, the government would provide each party with a subsidy on the basis of how many votes they won. The aim was to remove corporate (as in big body, not “business” because this could include unions) influence on the political process through donations. Personally, I think this is a good idea.

What the Conservatives proposed was to do away with the subsidies per vote to parties. They were not doing this out of economic concern because the amount of money that the government of Canada would save is completely insignificant. It would save something on the order of $30 million dollars but the total Canadian budget is over $240 billion. In other words, the best that this measure could save is something on the order of 1/1oth of 1 per cent. My math may be off a nick but you get the point. There is no reasonable way to pretend that this was a cost-saving matter. Instead, it was designed to limit the ability of opposition parties to campaign. We may not like this. I don’t think I do. But elections cost money and parties today need to buy TV time, run databases, etc. That is the nature of modern electioneering. The Conservatives do it and so they can’t actually think that it is bad. What they were doing is eliminating the ability of other parties to do the same thing they do.

Is this a bad thing? I think it is but that might not be the really significant point. I think it is a bad thing because a vibrant democracy requires opposition parties. If there is only a government party that faces no serious opposition then it has a free hand. We’ve been through periods like this in Canada and from what I can tell no one – excepting perhaps for those in government – was particularly satisfied. By undercutting the ability of the opposition to run an effective election campaign, the Conservatives were undercutting Canadian democracy and that, in my view, is not good. Harper and co must have sensed there was some problem with it because they tried to back away from this policy after daring the opposition parties to defeat them on this matter (one is tempted here to say “guess what”?)

The more significant point is that the Conservative policy was designed to build a lasting Conservative government. Now, this is what Conservatives do: try to building lasting Conservative governments. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s their business and it is a legitimate political perspective. What is interesting is that this strategy represented a departure from the ways in which conservatives in Canada – and Liberals for that matter – have tried to build lasting governments.

In Canada, the way one wins elections is to get more votes than other people but attracting people to your party (a simplification I know but follow the logic). Traditionally, this has been done by building coalitions of voters with different but compatible perspectives in which everyone has to sacrifice a bit, everyone has to compromise in order to maintain stable government. For example, in drawing together the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, each side needed to compromise in order to create a viable alternative government to the Liberals. In the past, this is precisely what Brian Mulroney – the last really successful conservative PM – did. He built a coalition of Quebecois “soft nationalists” (those seeking modifications to federalism as opposed to independence), western Neo-cons, Bay Street financial conservatives, and old-style Red Tories in parts of Ontario and eastern Canada. This coalition, as we all know, did not hold together but that was how the conservatives attempted to “take power”: by winning more votes. In Canada, successful coalitions are build around region, social class, ethnicity, language, etc.

After forging the CA and PC parties into a workable coalition, Harper stopped. After this election and the failure to win a majority by expanding their vote, others in the CPC must have come to the same decision because the Conservatives reversed course. Instead of trying to broaden their base to win some future election, they decided that the best way to win – to build a long-term Conservative government (which, to repeat is not a sin) – was to destroy the opposition. In effect, they took a page from the Karl Rove political primer.

Rove – Bush II’s rainmarker – followed precisely these types of policies: play on people’s fears, slander opponents, destroy their ability to run effective elections, build up huge war chests and run permanent elections. The goal was to not have to broaden the Republican coalition in order to maintain power. Broadening coalitions is not only difficult but it involves compromise. One needs to accept that in order to get part of what one wants – as a government – one will have to give up other things that don’t command as much support. Bush and Rove did not want to do this (despite protesting that they did). Instead, they wanted to forge ahead with their agenda.

This is what Harper’s advisors told him to do. In effect they said “we have had enough water in our wine. It is too weak now. And, we have before us a perfect opportunity to get what we want. We don’t need to get much more of the popular vote than we have now. What we need to do is not broaden our base by compromises any more of our values. If we simply destroy the ability of the Liberals and Bloc to wage an election campaign, we can win virtually by default.”

This is why their move was an affront to democracy. Karl Rove used to talk about the magic 23%. Noting that not all Americans vote, Rove speculated that if one could get 23% of Americans to vote for you, you could establish a near-permanent Republican government. This is what Harper and crew tried to do.

Now there is every reason to think that the Rove strategy was a loser. Bush is discredited. Not even his Republican allies, it turns out, could accept the ideological rigidity of some of his domestic policies and within six years of taking office and within four years of having majorities in both houses of Congress … the Democrats were on their way back. In other words, the Rove strategy – destroy the opposition as opposed to broaden one’s base – had a very short life span. Harper and crew would have been wise to pay attention to this before they attempted the same strategy in Canada.

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