Why good just won't cut it

WELLS: All the candidates are doing their jobs, but the real moment of peril lies ahead

Why good just won't cut it

Nathan Denette/CP

Just about the most fun I ever had on a campaign trail was with Dalton McGuinty when the lanky galoot was launching his first attempt to become Ontario’s premier, in 1999. Spoiler warning: it ended badly. Mike Harris, the lumbering Conservative incumbent, made short work of the rookie. But as the campaign began, at least McGuinty was having a little fun.

He stuck his head inside the door of a greasy spoon in Kingston and announced, “Hi everyone! We’re here to ruin your lunch.” A young mother handed him her baby to kiss for the cameras. “Lady, I’m gonna need to borrow your baby for the next month or so,” he said. She looked terrified.
McGuinty’s campaign staff looked worse. They knew what it would take them years to beat into their boss’s head: no matter how ridiculous this business is, you must never admit it is ridiculous. McGuinty no longer breaks through the fourth wall to comment on his own behaviour. He’s not as fun to cover as he used to be when he couldn’t win.

Michael Kelly, the American political reporter, used to say politics demands that a candidate look natural doing what nobody would naturally do. You spend the morning invading strangers’ personal space and the afternoon pretending to be fascinated by heavy machinery. You take questions from unfathomably surly reporters who will cheerfully pounce if you betray annoyance with them.

The highlight of any campaign is a debate in which you defend your past and projects, alone, in single combat against your enemies. If you win, you will have an office building full of advisers to help you with every decision and a country full of bureaucrats to put them into practice. Debates couldn’t have less to do with the skills leadership requires if they were juggling contests. Yet it’s the candidate who looks uncomfortable who’s penalized.
The surprise of this campaign is that Michael Ignatieff looks so comfortable doing all these odd things. The year he spent rehearsing was worth it. He gets good reviews wherever he goes. He put it all in danger by releasing his Liberal platform, because he gave his critics a target, where he had once been the one doing the shooting.

The platform assigns tidy piles of taxpayer money to a short list of woes. People who don’t like that sort of thing don’t like Ignatieff’s platform. The Conservatives say he will blow a multi-billion-dollar hole in the nation’s books. Which is only fair, because the Liberals said the same thing about Harper’s platform in 2006. Compared to his predecessor Stéphane Dion in 2008, Ignatieff is running a more compelling campaign that offers his opponents fewer targets.
But here’s the thing: that’s no guarantee of winning. The reason I’ve been thinking of Dalton McGuinty is not that he terrified that mom in Kingston 12 years ago. It’s that he ran a pretty good campaign and didn’t win. It was a real challenge to find ways to write about that.

Political reporters are hard-wired to write two kinds of stories: juggernaut and fiasco. We’re really good at telling you about a candidate who can’t be stopped, whose every step seems charmed. And we are pretty good at telling you about the sad sack whose every error is a prelude to another screw-up. Stéphane Dion in 2008 was an easy story to tell: missed opportunities, empty rooms, incomprehensible speeches, a party in disarray. As narrative, it was a piece of cake.

This year the campaign is harder to put a finger on. When they gather off-duty to discuss it, reporters often sound a bit annoyed about it all. Ignatieff is good at his work but, so far at least, is having trouble closing Stephen Harper’s lead. Harper sounds grumpy, and his helpers have the travelling press corps all but wrapped in cellophane to keep us off the big guy’s back, but his message—love the economy, fear the opposition—seems to be reaching the voters he wants it to reach.

Jack Layton’s eagerness to work with other parties makes him a poster boy for co-operation and flexibility. His struggle with cancer makes him one of this campaign’s most compelling human stories. Gilles Duceppe is in a bus somewhere, looking for threats he can make a show of protecting Quebecers against. Elizabeth May is outraged.
Everyone’s doing their job, and reasonably well to boot. This is the first campaign since at least 2004 when that’s been the case. Most of our recent elections have been mismatches, whether it was Jean Chrétien rolling over Stockwell Day in 2000, to an older, wilier Stephen Harper winning his rematch with Paul Martin in 2006.
A tie goes to the runner. Harper started ahead and, if you have to bet on this one, the safest assumption is that he will end ahead. Except for this: it is always when he is winning that Harper starts to make trouble for himself.

In the last week of the 2006 campaign, as I wrote in my book about those days, Harper “went into a shell. He had all but stopped speaking to reporters. The lockdown on candidates, already heavy-handed, became absurd.” Harper has clearly decided to run the entire 2011 campaign the way he ran the home stretch in 2006.
Something big will confound that strategy: the debates. The only good nights Stéphane Dion had in 2008 were the debates, when he could finally pin Harper down and force him to explain himself. And that was Stéphane Dion.

The moment of maximum peril for the Conservative leader lies ahead, in the debates on April 12 and 14. He cannot limit his opponents to four questions. He cannot have them ejected. He is one of the most agile politicians I’ve ever watched, but he has preferred to avoid a fair fight where he could, and now he has a fair fight coming at him.

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