I agree with this column except that I think the media is counting Michael Ignatieff out too soon. He is not a weak leader, he's just been bombarded with personal attack ads from both Reform-Conservatives and their new partners in crime. Barack Obama was a long shot, but he was able to offer a clear, intelligent alternative. We deserve clear intelligence too.
Tories get high marks they often don't deserve
October 8, 2009
OTTAWA—Not much flatters a political leader more than a weak opponent. Stephen Harper now understands that every bit as well as Jean Chrétien.
After Brian Mulroney sowed the seeds of Conservative destruction, Chrétien easily cut down Kim Campbell, Preston Manning and Stockwell Day. After Paul Martin defeated himself, Harper almost effortlessly humiliated Stéphane Dion and is now lining up Michael Ignatieff for the kill shot.
Winning shouldn't be that easy when the prize is almost unfettered power. With no competition to worry about, Liberal majorities lost their early momentum and faded away in policy lethargy, entitlement scandals and internal feuding. With no competent opposition, Conservative minorities are ruling much as if they had won majorities and are getting high marks they often don't deserve.
That dynamic is most evident in one of the issues that matter most. Opinion polls routinely find Canadians most comfortable letting Harper manage the economy.
Apart from having studied economics, there's little in the Prime Minister's history to justify that confidence. Wild Conservative spending and ineffectual, if politically popular, GST cuts made short work of an inherited $13 billion surplus. Harper and his finance minister first misread the recession and then misled the country on the inevitability of deficits.
Perhaps more remarkably, the Prime Minister and ruling party get passing grades on the environment. In fact, a bad Canadian record under Liberals has become shamefully worse under Conservatives. Almost as troubling, by so obviously dragging its feet on climate change the Harper government is damaging this country's reputation for progressive global stewardship.
However much able economic and environmental management should matter, they don't seem to matter enough to overcome the hunger for leadership. It's as if voters, weary of serial elections and frustrated by partisan games, have wilfully suspended their disbelief and parked their support in what feels like the safest place.
What's happening here now is what's happened here before. In the absence of something better, Harper, using all the powers of incumbency and supported by operatives willing to do almost anything to win, has established himself as the default choice.
By any standard, that's a remarkable achievement. It wasn't that long ago that Reformers were Ottawa's outsiders and a divided right left the fast lane open to near perpetual Liberal power.
All that has changed. Conservatives are now, and can reasonably expect to stay, the dominant force as long as Harper holds the dark side of his party and himself in check.
Both have gotten away from him before. Twice he snatched minorities from pending majorities by appealing too hard to the Conservative base and letting his deep animosities show. And last fall he came close to throwing away his government by taking a homicidal lunge at rivals in what should have been a fall fiscal update focused solely on the financial crisis.
Those character flaws exact a terrible political price. As Liberals are still learning, they bring once strong parties to their knees and bring to power prime ministers who have little to fear from enemies who are not seen as alternatives.
Such is the ebb and flow of federal politics and such is the delight of being a political leader flattered by weak opponents.