Politics 2013: the calmer middle part

Paul Wells looks at what's ahead for the PM

I’m with Nascar blogger MadCowRacing: the middle of a long race is underrated. “It seems like today a lot of people don’t know how to enjoy the middle part of the races, the part where the drivers settle in for a while,” MadCowRacing writes in his blog post about 500-mile track races, which I adopt as a text for Canadian federal politics in 2013. “A lot of people think these guys are ‘riding around,’ but that is never really the case except for the drivers who like to sit in the back until the end of a restrictor plate race.”

I have no clue what a restrictor plate race is, but this sounds right to me. Indeed, as we read further into MadCowRacing’s treatise, it becomes harder and harder to tell whether we’re talking about hurtling metal or middle-aged political lifers. “You get to see how drivers handle their cars as the tires get worn?” Check. “You really get to see who has the better chassis?” Yup. “You don’t have to worry as much about a wreck taking out a lot of the competition?” Indeed. The Dion and Ignatieff pileups happened at the end of a campaign or, in Dion’s case, five weeks after. Finally, “The track surfaces get greesy [sic] and hot, with the lines consistently changing.” You took the words right out of my mouth, MadCowRacing.

2013 stands halfway between the election of 2011 and the scheduled election of Oct. 19, 2015. If that timing holds, the next Liberal leader will have lasted as long as Ignatieff and longer than Dion simply by sitting around waiting for a chance to run a campaign. I do think there’s a good chance Stephen Harper will figure out a way to have an election in 2014, fixed-election laws having, as they do, a way of being flexible around here. But even then, a political culture that had spent the years from 2004 to 2011 surfing on constant election speculation will be well and truly distant, this year, from any hope of a quick sugar high.

This will be Harper’s second full, uninterrupted year as a majority prime minister. He can introduce and pass two more 400-page omnibus budget implementation acts, run the foreign policy of his choice, make appointments unhindered, fill the airwaves with snarky ads. Whatever kind of prime minister he ever wanted to be, this will be the kind of year he gets to be that prime minister. There are three schools of thought on Harper: Canada-Hating Vandal, Pointless Mucker-About, and Incremental Reformer. Leading spokesmen for the three schools include Michael Harris, Dan Gardner, and me. I fearlessly predict that Harper in 2013 will offer all three schools plenty of evidence to support their theories, and that Dan will therefore conclude he’s right.

But as the surfaces get greesy and hot, 2013 will also turn out, in retrospect, to have had a lot to do with how the next election plays out. For one thing, thanks to the awesomely leisurely Liberal leadership-selection process, we will, two weeks after Easter, finally know the full slate of party leaders for the next election. When 2012 began we did not know Tom Mulcair would be the next NDP leader, we did not think Bob Rae would absent himself from the next election, and we could not be sure Justin Trudeau wanted to be his party’s leader. Now, barring personal catastrophe or a decision by Harper to leave politics while he’s ahead, the 2015 slate is coming together: Harper, Mulcair, May, Irrelevant Bloc Guy Who May Get Lucky, and Unnamed But Soon To Be Known Liberal.

Running a national election campaign is a complex skill. You get better at it as you go along. Only Harper and May will go into the next election with some experience leading a national campaign. Mulcair and the Liberal will be rookies. Harper has done a little better in every election he has contested as Conservative leader. May finally won her seat in 2011, has done well with it, and has no fear that Harper will steal any of her issues by governing in a greener manner in the next couple of years. We should expect strong campaigns from both.

Mulcair’s polling trendline since late spring should worry New Democrats, but not unduly: Jack Layton was never given the luxury of wondering how to interpret a decline from 35% to 29%, because under him the party almost never even saw 20% support. Is Mulcair vulnerable to Conservative attack ads? Is his support eroding because Justin Trudeau had a good summer and fall? Is an essentially silly post-NDP-leadership Mulcair bubble fading as the party returns to a solid new base near 30%? Or has the NDP begun a slow decline as Mulcair’s attempts to moderate his party (note the lack of photos with hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence) simply blur its definition? Beats me. In 2013 we’ll see how Mulcair handles his car as his tires get worn.

Much depends on the Liberals. Let us speculate recklessly that their next leader will be Justin Trudeau. His timing is not ideal. A new leader who rides a crest of popularity to an electoral breakthrough really needs a quick election. Diefenbaker won his landslide five months after becoming opposition leader in 1957. [UPDATE: I never get that right. Actually, Dief won a minority in 1957 and grew it to a big majority in 1958.] Pierre Trudeau won his two months after he replaced Lester Pearson as prime minister. Brian Mulroney had a relatively long 15 months to wait before his 1984 cakewalk, but that was mostly because the Liberals tried to avert disaster by switching out their leader. Justin Trudeau, if it is he, will begin two and a half years of cooling his heels, waiting to ask the third round of daily questions, reading daily leaks from his caucus in the Globe. That prospect in itself should make Liberals consider carefully before letting themselves get swept up in Trudeaumania II, because their next leader will need a solid chassis for a long ride. Yes, I’m getting tired of this extended metaphor too.

The opposition parties should all worry, all the time, that their support is simply a system of communicating vases: that rising Green support hurts mostly New Democrat and Liberal incumbents, that Trudeau or Marc Garneau or Martha Hall Findlay can hope at best only to replace Mulcair as Stephen Harper’s sixth opposition leader. A party normally loses power only when its supporters stop supporting it. In 2008 and 2011 no opposition party could dissuade large numbers of Conservative voters from voting Conservative again, because the kind of people who were amenable to voting Conservative could not be dissuaded from their belief that Harper would be a better economic manager than the alternatives.

There are only three paths to power for any opposition leader: peel away a large amount of what has been, for four elections in a row, solid Conservative support; completely collapse voter support for the other opposition parties; or implement a workable plan for opposition-party merger or cooperation. None of these can be done in the five weeks before an election. The work on any of these plans would need to start soon. If 2013 is a year in which little changes in the distribution of political power and partisan support, it will be a very good year for Stephen Harper.