Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bye, bye, Stephen

As the Conservative ship is listing badly and taking on water, few will shed a tear other than the tears of frustration we're now seeing on the anxious faces of the party faithful. Captain Harper, navigating between sea-monsters--on one side, the so-con Scylla, on the other, the latte-sipping, artsy-fartsy, vaguely treasonous Charybdis--has finally fetched up on the shoals of the economy.

His was a missed opportunity of historic proportions. Under our antique and undemocratic electoral system, the Cons only had to corral 40% or so of the votes of those who bothered to turn up at the polls (maybe a quarter of the electorate), to rule unimpeded for four ghastly years. The goal wouldn't be easy to achieve, but it was hardly out of reach.

"Strong" (read autocratic) leadership, therefore, almost inevitably became a key issue. There are always people who seek the vicarious thrill of sadopolitics--jailing 14-year-olds, sending troops off to fight foreign wars, poking culture in the eye, sticking it to the CBC, dissing the "liberal" media, bullying and firing bureaucrats, and crushing anyone else who gets in the way. For the Conservatives there is no shortage of targets, as we have seen: it's been high noon for nearly two years.

And then four things happened.

First, the handlers decided to let the Conservative basement kids loose. The results were some serious gaffes that could have derailed the campaign. The machine was soon back on track, and by itself this difficult start could have been overcome, but it left questions in many people's minds. Nevertheless, the polls, if not the pollsters,* were looking pretty good, especially in swing ridings (now renamed "battleground riding's" as our psychological deep integration with the US continues).

At the same time, though, the strategists decided to make Harper kindler and gentler, all blue sweater-vest and proud father. This was, as Citizen columnist Randall Denley pointed out at the time, a serious blunder. Nobody was fooled. His core constituency, in fact, didn't want a kind, sweet man in charge. And his opponents were not taken in by the palpable insincerity of the new election-ad Stephen.

On the hustings, the real Harper has seemed even more tightly controlled than usual, almost paralyzed. His performance in the leaders debates was extraordinarily poor: he sat there, often speaking in an emotionless monotone, while his strategists hoped the other leaders would overplay their hands--which to some extent, of course, they did. But he suffered for it.

Debates don't usually decide electoral matters, of course. But crises, on the other hand, test political leaders to the core. There is simply nowhere to hide. Faced with a cataclysmic economic meltdown, Canadians wanted clear, decisive answers, and they also needed a sense of connection.

Harper failed spectacularly, however, to connect with the public, musing aloud instead about buying up stock bargains. Yes, as he said defensively, keeping one's head in a crisis in important; but at times like this, people want heart as well.
He hasn't done all that well with the head part, as it happens. But it's the man's utter lack of empathy, I think, that has sealed his party's fate.

One can feel the ground shifting. The Globe and Mail, decrying his lack of leadership on the economy last week, today published a cartoon mocking his aloofness. The Ottawa Citizen went further: its cartoon portrays him as a child begging at the door.
His supporters are resigned to another minority government at best--don't be fooled by the brave rhetoric. They're flailing mightily, but they know the awful truth.

Margaret Wente gave him a tongue-lashing this morning that would have brought a rhino to its knees. There's an almost incredulous chorus of shock and disapppointment, and much grumbling and second-guessing, as the man behind the curtain is finally revealed. Even the conservative Economist now refers to his poor leadership on the environment and his "inner oilman."

The polls indicate another minority government--possibly even a Liberal one. Harper has managed an impossible feat--making Stéphane Dion look good in comparison. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory--because another Conservative minority government is as much a defeat for Harper as a Liberal win--he has dashed the hopes of his party and his constituency. How much longer will he lead it?

* Pollster silliness continues unabated. The CBC suggests that Harper's decline in the polls has ceased, because the latest poll indicates a one-percent increase over the last one. The margin of error is 2.7%!

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