Megapundit: Inside Stephen Harper’s big tent


Must-reads: James Travers on the wilderness-bound Liberals; Haroon Siddiqui on pulling out of Afghanistan; Greg Weston on Dion’s green math; John Ivison interviews Stephen Harper; Dan Leger on Tory hopes in Nova Scotia.

Welcome to Week Two
In which serious policy discussions replace the media’s collective obsession with gaffes. No, really!

The Conservatives’ basic election strategy is “to defang Mr. Harper among swing voters,” Jeffrey Simpson argues in The Globe and Mail, and they’re doing a fine job of it in spite of the gaffes committed during week one of the campaign—or maybe even because of them. Hardly any of those swing voters are paying attention to the campaign yet, Simpson suggests, and those that are may well have been impressed by Harper’s uncharacteristic humility in dealing with his war room’s excesses.

The Prime Minister spews forth various talking points in an interview with the National Post‘s John Ivison, but also provides an interesting status report on his plan “to make conservatism the natural governing philosophy of the country.” Mission accomplished on the “market economy and fiscal responsibility” front, Harper suggests. And he also thinks Canadians are gradually realizing that “the protection of law-abiding citizens, their families and their property” has to take precedence over rehabilitation in the criminal justice system, that Canadian unity can’t be solved by consolidating power in Ottawa, and that focusing on the “social fabric of the country” doesn’t necessarily point to any “theological agenda.”

“It seems absurd to apply the phrase ‘big tent politics’ to a man who has a tendency to play the man, not the puck, if he feels he is being taunted or thwarted,” Ivison writes in a separate piece. But on Prince Edward Island, once an invincible Liberal redoubt, “it seems his mission to earn respect, rather than affection, is paying off.” Polls show just a 10 per cent gap between the two parties, he notes, and with Harper willing to abandon his principles and “distribute pork” … er, make that, abandon his ill-informed opposition to the “rather unique way politics is conducted in the region,” Ivison says upsets could be in the offing.

Maybe so, but things are not looking up for the Tories in Nova Scotia, Dan Leger writes in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. The party’s efforts to shed its Atlantic Accord baggage have been wholly undone by the selections of Joel Bernard (potentially “an all-around great guy” but a complete outsider) to take on Bill Casey in Cumberland-Colchester-Muquodoboit Valley, of Rosemary Segado (whose husband is an anti-Harper fanatic) to run against “ultimate anti-Tory” Scott Brison in Kings-Hants, and of Rosamond Luke (who has a criminal record) to run in Halifax—to say nothing of all the other candidates who might have run for the Tories if they thought they had a ghost of a chance of winning.

Rex Murphy, writing in the Globe, notes Danny Williams’ sneering farewell to outgoing Tory MP Loyola Hearn and at long last loses his patience with the Newfoundland Premier. “The idea that Mr. Hearn, because he disagreed with Mr. Williams, acted with less than honourable intent toward Newfoundland is ludicrous,” he thunders. “He should look over history’s shoulder and take in what happened to Joey Smallwood, a great premier who subtracted from his own legacy by succumbing to the vanity of power [and] the great corrosive self-flattery of believing.”

The Calgary Herald‘s Don Martin summarizes Week One on the Dion bus (and, belatedly, airplane) as follows: “If this is, as Dion says, an election for the ages placing Canada at the crossroads of a nation governed by a cold, dirty, heartless, self-reliant prime minister or his green and compassionate government,” then you’d think there’d be some crowds out there waiting to meet their mush-mouthed, bespectacled saviour. Alas, no. And ironically, Martin notes, Dion’s best performance came in a University of Victoria classroom that was about 200 seats too small. In short, if it hadn’t been for the puffin and Sparrow incidents, “this would’ve been the week from hell for the Liberals.”

Dion drew “almost 1,000” to a speech on Saturday night in Richmond, B.C., Sun Media’s Greg Weston counters, and generally speaking “the wheels on his campaign looked less likely to fall off as the week progressed.” But the bounce, if that’s what it is, has yet to register in poll numbers, and in Weston’s view, the Green Shift remains “a convoluted tangle of exemptions” predicated on “the improbable proposition that billions of dollars in new environmental taxes on oil companies and public electrical utilities will not be passed on to consumers.”

Also improbable, Weston opines, is that the Green Shift will cover the costs of Dion’s proposed grants of up to $10,000 for homeowners to install more energy-efficient appliances and insulation. Homes must be inspected by government-employed “auditors,” he notes, and even after the Conservative government doubled their numbers, they still “only got to 35,000 homes” last year. “Even if the feds keep handing out rebates at the current average rate of $1,250, Dion’s plan to get the drafts out of 50% of Canadian homes would cost almost $10 billion,” Weston calculates. Give everyone the full 10 grand, he says, and “the federal treasury would be broke in no time.”

The Toronto Star‘s James Travers surveys the doom and gloom in Liberal-land, where some are praying for miracles and contemplating “years in the wilderness,” raises his hammer and hits the nail squarely on the head: “None of that would be looming now if Liberals had learned the lessons of the last election. Instead of recognizing their deserved defeat as an omen of worse to come, instead of thoroughly reconsidering what it means to be a 21st-century progressive party, they misread the outcome as a timeout, a brief recess before an almost automatic return to power.” Yes, indeedily doodily. He even manages to keep the RCMP out of the picture for once!

With polls giving the Tories a 10-digit lead, Quebec a write-off, the Greens poaching votes left, right and centre, and the very real “possibility that the NDP will close in on the Liberals,” the Star‘s Chantal Hébert gives Dion “at most a week to recast himself as a credible alternative to Harper or else the Liberals will find themselves on an irreversible course to a near-historical defeat next month.”

In the Montreal Gazette, L. Ian MacDonald explains all the ways in which Dion is utterly screwed in Quebec—off the Island of Montreal, that is—but says none of them, really, are his fault. Dion played no part in the Meech Lake debacle—indeed, he supported it—or the sponsorship program, and “he has generally been very respectful of provincial jurisdictions,” yet he retains the “image as the bad cop of federalism” thanks to the Clarity Act. And while it’s also not Dion’s fault that the Conservatives came along, declared Quebec a nation and “gave both frustrated federalists and soft nationalists a respectable place to go,” it’s sure as hell Dion’s problem.

Lysiane Gagnon, writing in the Globe, declares Elizabeth May’s inclusion in the leaders’ debates a “disgrace”—an emotional, “demagogic” decision made by broadcasters too weak-kneed to stand up to popular opinion and May’s allegations of discrimination and enforce their own rules for inclusion, which Gagnon says “were clear and perfectly fair.” Fairness aside, the obvious counterargument here is that if the rules had been clear, then May wouldn’t be in the debate right now, but they weren’t, so she is.

The Calgary Herald‘s Nigel Hannaford goes digging on this new interweb thing—That’s right, isn’t it? Interweb?—and is baffled to find that the major political parties haven’t yet Interweb-ized their platforms. We really don’t think it’s that unusual early on in the campaign, and with all due respect, the fact that Kevin Taft’s Alberta Liberals had their platform out before Ed Stelmach called an election is, if anything, reason to do the opposite. (We do, however, like the part where Hannaford complains that our generation “will spend two minutes looking up a phone number on [our] computer before [we’ll] take five seconds to find it in a phone book.” What the hell is a “phone book”?)

Speaking of this mysterious Interweb, the Globe‘s Lawrence Martin becomes the umpteenth commentator to refer to the Rogue Puffin as part of an “advertisement,” as opposed to a wee animation on one of these newfangled “websites.” But whatever it was, Martin says it’s evidence that it takes more than a blue sweater, a few minutes at the piano and a few breakfasts with reporters to shake a well-deserved reputation for meanness. Still, he concedes, the Prime Minister has successfully built himself an image as a strong leader despite exhibiting very few of the qualities most people would associate with true leadership.

In the Post, David Frum rather confusingly rebuts the notion that following the Canadian election is “like sitting alone in a tiny attic apartment listening to a wonderful party roaring below” by arguing that John McCain would give his eye teeth to be able to run on Harper’s campaign of “proud accomplishment.” To us, these seem like two different, not particularly related points: (a) Canada’s not in as much trouble as the U.S. and (b) the U.S. election is more exciting. But we certainly agree with Frum’s dismissal of the idea that there’s little at stake in our election. “The inescapable volatility of the Canadian economy puts a premium on government that is steady, competent and predictable,” he argues.

Countdown to 2011
Whereas Michael Ignatieff laments the decline of the principle of humanitarian intervention in the latest New Republic, George Jonas is “reassured” by it. “Not because I’ve a soft spot for massacres and ethnic cleansing,” he writes in the Post, “but because the spectre of a new world order of supra-national bureaucracy replacing the Treaty of Westphalia and national sovereignty terrified me.” In practice, he notes, citing the example of NATO troops being put “at the disposal of the Kosovo Liberation Army” with, um, mixed results, the doctrine hasn’t worked out too well anyway.

The Ottawa Citizen‘s Randall Denley sees a glaring contradiction in Harper’s confirmation of the 2011 pullout date from Afghanistan: “If all that we have sacrificed so far … was to obtain a stable government …, why leave before the job is done? [And] if we believe that objective is unattainable, why sacrifice more Canadian lives and further billions of dollars?” Denley, however, knows where he stands: we can’t win this thing, and saying so would be “the real act of courage.” He may be right, of course, but we’re a little perplexed by his contention that we should focus our overseas attentions on “countries that are stable, but struggling economically,” rather than a “bottomless pit” like Afghanistan. What do we do with the bottomless pits, exactly? Seal them off, cut the phone lines and come back in 20 years to see what happened?

The Star‘s Thomas Walkom is less struck by Harper’s commitment to get out in 2011 than he is by his stated reason: domestic politics. “I really don’t think there’ll be much appetite among Canadians … to see (military) rotations continuing the way they’ve been after six years,” said our Prime Minister. So, Walkom concludes, after all the years of painting Afghanistan as a key front in the war on terror and promising to bring “freedom and prosperity” to the Afghan people, “it seems … the deadly Afghan war is just one of those ‘things’ that Ottawa does—like attending international conferences or debating copyright laws.” And if that’s all it is, Walkom asks, why not leave right now? (Apropos of very little, Walkom also refers to the Khadr family’s new website as “somewhat self-serving.” It’s roughly equivalent to referring to Jack Layton as “somewhat mustachioed.”)

Particularly given its newly underscored 2011 pullout date, Canada should grow a backbone and push for “a political way out of the quagmire,” says the Star‘s Haroon Siddiqui—”a serious diplomatic strategy,” in Janice Stein’s words, that addresses not just Afghanistan but Pakistan’s “existentialist fears,” including violations of its sovereignty by U.S. troops and the long-simmering conflict with India. Makes sense to us—we’re leaving anyway, right? Why not try to leave under the best possible circumstances?

Scott Taylor, writing in the Chronicle-Herald, defends peace activist, NDP candidate and personal friend Tamara Lorincz against the uninformed opprobrium of Peter MacKay, who suggested Lorincz’s protest outside the DEFSEC Atlantic trade show in Halifax rendered her “unfit for public office.” In Taylor’s experience, Lorincz has never made “a single disparaging remark against either the professionalism of the Canadian Forces or the individuals who volunteer to serve in defence of Canada.” And given MacKay’s not-so-stellar record of standing up for Canadian troops himself—declining to dispute allegations of poor performance by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, for instance—Taylor suggests he’s in no position to be pointing fingers in the first place.