Thursday, February 04, 2010

Political Genius?

Far too much has been made of Harper's supposed political genius. This might not have a lot to do with Canadian public life. Indeed, I think that most public discourses places far too much emphasis on the degree to which party leaders make decisions themselves. It does happen, but everything that I've read suggest that the norm is something else. It suggests that leaders consult with advisors, the cabinet, key members of the civil service, caucus, pollsters, foreign leaders, heck all matter of people before arriving at a decision. In this sense, the Conservative's decision to go for a majority government last time round, bringing down their own minority government, was not Harper's alone. There are a lot of people who can be blamed for it.

I mention this because in retrospect, it seems like a very bad decision. The goal was to gain a secure hold on government with what I think Conservatives thought would be a majority, a slim one perhaps but a majority none-the-less. Heck knows they have worked hard enough for it. And, of course, they are still at it. Harper has been on non-stop foreign tours, they ditched their own economic philosophies in the face a recession and started dolling out money right, left, and centre; cut taxes; subsidized stay-at-home parents; pulled just about every political trick anyone could think of -- proroguing Parliament, violating their own election laws, attempting to cut finding to opposition parties -- are in permanent campaign mode with a loaded "war chest" that allows them to blanket media in a way that other parties can't. They've even sent out flyers on the public tab.

Now, I am not blaming the Conservatives for this nor am I saying that they are any worse than any other political party. I've noted before that I think their political philosophy has problem and I think their electoral strategies -- which appeared modeled on the American Republican Party -- are intensely problematic. I would argue that they have moved politics to a different level, but politics is, after all, politics and we would be naive to believe that a political party would not take advantage of opportunities to defeat their opponents and maintain themselves in power.

And ... opportunities the Conservatives have had. They got lucky in that Paul Martin staged a coup inside the Liberal Party, deeply dividing it and just about killing a large chunk of its organizational structure. In other words, the civil war in the Liberal Party did not divide the Party the way the Progressive Conservatives fractured in the last years of the Mulroney government, but it did seriously hamper the ability of the Party -- and the desire of the Chretien wing of the Party -- to fight an election. Add to this, Martin's lack of vision; media that had become intensely hostile to the Liberal Party, an ineffective successor who few in the Liberal Party wanted; further disaffection; the collapse and discrediting of the Quebec wing of the Party; the collapse of the Party's funding; a revitalized NDP and a vibrant if ineffective Green Party siphoning votes away from the Liberals on the soft left; and policies that Canadians neither understood nor seemed, at least at the time, to want. Moreover, the Conservatives had the benefit of balanced budgets. They did not need to prudent -- at least in the short run! They could cut taxes and increase spending.

Put all this together and our understanding of the last two Conservative victories requires no interpretation at all. The character of the opposition parties virtually handed the Conservatives an election victory. Now, again, this is not anything to blame the Conservatives for. If we were in class, we'd analyse the election results to determine exactly how popular the Conservatives (or, their policies) really were. We're not so I won't. What I will say is that Conservatives found themselves in a situation that was similar to -- not the same as but similar to -- the Liberals in 1993. The Chretien Liberals won 1993 almost by default. There were other reasons, of course, but one big reason was that they took advantage of a fortuitous situation. And, they were able to parlay this luck into a series of election victories.

Here is where political genius might enter into our discussion. The Conservatives have not been able to do this. It was genius or calculation or strategy that helped the Conservatives into power. Strategy might have played a role but, in retrospect, the Conservatives were handed a golden opportunity. They took it ... but, so far at least, have not done very much with it. Let me pick just one example to illustrate my point. Again, the situations are different so my example is a bit forced by in 1993 the Liberals entered office with a defined economic plan. One might like it; one might dislike it. But, they had a plan and they stuck to it. The Conservatives entered office with an economic plan -- return the Canadian economy to a more free market basis -- but abandoned it quickly. They introduced meaningless tax cuts that served only to impoverish the capacity of the state, unleashed a dramatic increase in state spending, and, when the going got tough, tried to ignore world economic problems -- I'm actually not convinced that they ignored the problem; I think they actually may not have understood the magnitude of the problem -- and then abandoned their own economic plans completely. Now, Harper says (and, I believe him) that the Conservative government will consult with Canadians to determine in what direction they should move. This sounds to me a lot like they are unsure themselves. Ultimately, the Conservatives lack of faith in their own economic platform and their quick grafting of another platform onto theirs has created problems for them. They appear indifferent to problems and then unable to provide the resources they said were "in the tube" for stimulus. They have driven up a huge debt, with their numbers changing almost monthly and have declared that they don't have much of an idea about how to proceed  from here.

This is not political genius. Political genius is the ability to determine policies in advance, ensure that those policies have some effect (or, that they work) and then stick to them. Political genius is the ability to take advantage of the opportunities with which you are presented. And this, the Conservative government has not done.
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