I’m told the Conservatives have done market research — focus groups, maybe polling — on voter responses to Thomas Mulcair’s beard. Life never gives us what we want, so I don’t know what they learned from their inquiries. But the nugget suggests the level of mutual fascination and suspicion as the three main parties near the top of the hill up which they’ve been rolling the stone of this majority-government mandate. After this weekend, things will start to move downhill, and accelerate, toward 2015, unless Stephen Harper finds a reason to have an election sooner.
On Sunday in Ottawa, a new Liberal leader will be designated. I’m going to take a wild guess that it will be Justin Trudeau. Also on Sunday in Montreal, the New Democrats will wrap up a policy convention during which they will receive levels of scrutiny they’re not used to. The NDP has slid, not alarmingly but noticeably, in the polls roughly since we, er, put Tom Mulcair on our cover last autumn; part of their response this weekend will be a PR blitz designed to humanize the flinty NDP leader, who does not help mythologizers along by riding bikes and playing guitar the way his late predecessor did.
The NDP will also debate policy. There are a bunch of resolutions in the book that don’t square well with Mulcair’s efforts to moderate the party so it might permanently replace the Liberals as the broadly accepted alternative to Harperism. A particularly amusing bunch, all submitted by a B.C. riding association that seemed to have been channelling Neil Kinnock, called for half the economy to be nationalized. That got Jim Flaherty hopping mad yesterday (“Radical.. jarring… rip up… forcibly… command economy”; all that hurt-me talk might just be enough to make Mulcair look sexier, although it will be strictly a niche market) , and it kind of rolled right into the prime minister’s remarks today over Alexandre Boulerice’s old blog post on the First World War. A “purely capitalist war on the backs of workers and peasants,” Boulerice had said, clearly banking on an A at UQAM if he ever needed to go back to school. “Outrageous, inflammatory, unacceptable,” Harper said in Calgary.
- Justin Trudeau: Where to now? John Geddes on the three key themes in the Liberal Party leader’s acceptance speech
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- Maclean’s (formerly) live blog: Geddes and Taylor-Vaisey, analysis and snark
Two points about all that. First, most of the truly wacky resolutions will probably be skilfully euthanized before they make it to a closing plenary vote. But they made it to the convention, and they bespeak a general skepticism about markets, trade and large companies that the Conservatives would have to not be Conservatives to ignore. Mulcair has some choices to make, as he is realizing he has had to make for a year now, about what kind of leader he wants to be, and what kind of party he is to lead. A recent Ekos poll shows that barely 56 per cent of declared NDP supporters approve of the job he’s doing as leader. The other leaders aren’t doing fantastically well with their own bases, either — I don’t recall seeing Stephen Harper down close to 70 per cent on that score before — but they’re doing better than Mulcair, and he’s had markedly less success at consolidating the NDP base than Layton did. That’s the measure that Michael Ignatieff routinely trailed on, and it’s a handy proxy for voter motivation. (People who still manage to persuade themselves that Harper is some kind of accidental PM should note his consistently high approval levels among Conservative voters. They don’t vote for his party because they’re stuck with him, they vote Conservative because they’re glad he leads the party.) Mulcair’s sagging performance isn’t fatal, but it puts homework in front of him. Halfway to an election is not too soon to do it. One assumes he knows that well and will begin the work in earnest in Montreal.
The second emerging point is that the NDP gets under Harper’s skin in a different way than the Liberals. With the Liberals it’s cultural — Harper doesn’t like them — and he can have some fun with it. With the NDP it’s philosophical, and he is perfectly humourless about it. His discourse on the NDP so far sounds like the Paul Martin Liberals’ discourse about him — dangerous, extremist, out of the mainstream, boo boo boo — and he will know better than most how ineffective such glowering can be. In his autobiography Tony Blair wrote a bit about how he used to take down all those Tories he defeated:
“So I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgment; Howard as an opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go. . . . Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring—but that’s their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims. They don’t chime. They’re too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it’s more accurate and precisely because it’s more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that’s that. Because in each case, it means they’re not a good leader. So game over.“
Harper defined Ignatieff as an opportunist and Dion as weak, with the results we have seen. He cannot seem to stop calling Mulcair a villain. It’s like he’s lost his touch, and it’s odd.
Trudeau arrives with strong polling support that has now lasted half a year. The fun stops on Sunday. He faces two years eating Mulcair’s table scraps in the Commons, whatever the polls say: third parties usually don’t prosper from Question Period. The challenge for Trudeau will be at least twofold: maintaining an aura of romance in a profoundly prosaic gig, and building a Liberal party culture, if not precisely a set of policy positions, nearly from scratch. He made a bold and significant start today in La Presse, where he said he would hold business and corporate taxes, and the GST, where they are — at 50-year record-low levels as a fraction of GDP. How, then, to fund a more activist government? By not caring much about eliminating the deficit — he told his interviewers in this morning’s paper it’s “irresponsible” of Harper to want to balance the budget by 2015. It will be interesting to see how this position evolves as it receives more scrutiny. At best it’s a tenable middle path between the steady modest Harper cuts and the NDP agenda for larger government at higher cost. (Somewhere Colleague Wherry has a blog post on that subject, which I’ll link when I find it.) At worst it’s a heffalump of a compromise that will last as long as Michael Ignatieff’s early guesses at policy used to.
The progressive constraining of the federal government is Harper’s grand game, and Trudeau’s opening gambit is to plead no contest. In this he more closely resembles the first incarnation of Joe Clark, who offered no serious critique of the then-dominant Trudeau assumptions about growing government, than any true revolutionary. Harper will do what he can to destroy this Trudeau, but I bet today he paused to take pleasure in the way Trudeau accepts the premises on which the next election will be fought.