The mystery of Jean Charest

Bottom's up!There’s a word for businesses whose fortunes don’t conform to dominant patterns, outfits like collection agencies or discount food chains that do their briskest business in recessions: counter-cyclical. I’m beginning to think Jean Charest is a counter-cyclical politician.

Consider the latest poll results that put the premier well ahead of his competitors. Even if we assume incumbents enjoy a natural advantage over challengers during the summer months, Charest’s feat is impressive. Over the past few months, his government has been saddled with bad news coming from virtually all sides: the Caisse de dépot’s bottom line is a mess; Hydro-Québec is taking flak for a handful of impolitic donations; the provincial budget is riddled with holes; on more than one occasion, the Liberals have found themselves tiptoeing around potential ethical scandals; and to top it all off, Charest has shed two key cabinet ministers over the past 18 months. And yet, his government has rarely been as popular as it is now. Even the normally loquacious PQ is downright stumped.

Now consider the circumstances under which Charest has struggled most. In 2003, he was elected with a healthy majority and a mandate to “re-engineer the state.” At the time, the province’s finances were in (relatively) good shape, the economy was still chugging along, and the spectre of a referendum had dimmed to near-invisibility. Charest’s only immediate challenge was to keep the peace with the angry suburbanites who were still miffed at the municipal mergers. But even that didn’t seem too daunting—what were they going to do, vote for the PQ? But then came the protests, the strikes, the plummeting poll numbers. Soon, the dominant question about Charest wasn’t whether he was doing a good job or a bad one, but whether he was doing the worst job in history.

The early days of Charest’s post-2007 minority government provide another case in point. In a bid to prop up Charest, Ottawa had handed him hundreds of millions of dollars just days before Quebecers went to the polls. Charest promptly turned around and promised to use $700 million of that money to fund tax cuts. Even though the figure was barely a fraction of the billions in cuts he had promised (and never delivered) in 2003, the gambit nearly cost him his government. The 2009 budget, by contrast, included a sales tax hike for 2011—and Charest is as popular as he’s ever been.

All of which got me thinking: Are there any other counter-cyclical politicians out there—that is, politicians for whom times are good when conventional wisdom suggests they shouldn’t be and vice-versa?