There’s going to be a lot to wince about in the coming weeks. Attack ads ad nauseum. Big issues blown off, small ones blown out of proportion. Five weeks of weak rhetoric.
For all that, though, it’s too easy to slip into the faux-sophisticated, eye-rolling, I-see-right-through-it mode that so often passes for political commentary. Better to start off leaning against that lazy tendency by explicitly acknowledging the considerable achievements of the leaders we’re about to find so lacking.
Stephen Harper could easily have wasted his political talent as a mere right-wing commentator. That’s what he seemed to be up to when he exited politics to run the National Citizens Coalition. Instead, he came to his senses, returned to the fray, and created the new Conservative Party of Canada. Even if you never vote Tory, be thankful—we need national institutions, not regional splinters. Obviously that gratitude needn’t extend, depending on your perspective, to all he’s done as Prime Minister. But only a blinkered partisan fails to see his skills. I would mention, for instance, his adroit playing of international politics, particularly in the run-up to last summer’s G20 in Toronto, and his execution at the summit itself.
Michael Ignatieff might never have quit his expat intellectual’s life. England and New England made him. But he decided to contribute something beyond books to his native land. Even if you never vote Liberal, you shouldn’t scoff at that. Too many impressive business leaders, academics, diplomats—you name it—turn up their noses at the drudgery of democracy. If the jury is still out on his political acumen, he’s shown flashes of the real leadership deal. In an era of vaporous policy-making around Ottawa, for example, his caregivers’ benefit idea was pitched with clarity and comprehensiveness.
Jack Layton was no slouch at Toronto municipal politics. A less optimistic politician would never have traded that big city scene for the uncertain task of rebuilding the marginalized federal New Democrats he took over in 2003. Even if you never vote NDP, you have to admit the party looks far more relevant now than it did in the 1990s, sometimes even rising to the role, so cherished by its faithful, of parliamentary conscience. Some of his bolder moves—like calling for negotiations with the Taliban long before the notion was widely accepted—can only be understood as more principled than calculated.
I sketch all this now (and pace, Bloquistes) because I think this campaign might just be worthy of the country. But it won’t be if we go into it assuming the worst, and ignoring the ample grounds for expecting and, if need be, demanding better.