Dalton McGuinty: Partial Comeback Kid

Six months ago, McGuinty was toast with a stake through his heart

“Admit it,” a Liberal campaign guy said to me at the Château Laurier while those last few seats were see-sawing back and forth, “If I had told you six months ago that we’d be on the cusp of a majority tonight, would you have believed me?”

Nope. Six months ago I’d have said Dalton McGuinty was toast with a stake through his heart. Or whatever your preferred mixed doom metaphor is. The Liberal has run a doughy, amorphous government, strong on primary schooling in my opinion, but lackluster with the occasional big mess elsewhere. Most Ontarians couldn’t pick Conservative Tim Hudak or New Democrat Andrea Horwath out of a police lineup but they figured surely anybody had to be better than this boyo.

That changed. McGuinty took a licking but he keeps on ticking. His party lost 18 seats. Eleven go to the Progressive Conservatives, seven to the NDP. Reporters get super-excited when it’s unclear whether a government will hold a majority of seats, but even if he falls one short, at 53, McGuinty is close enough and the affinities between his rivals so few that he’ll be able to govern comfortably for quite a while. He’s already outlasted Mike Harris and David Peterson; he’ll have had the job for about a decade before he has to decide whether he wants to try a fourth time. No, I don’t expect him to. But he’s already proved surprising.

What happened? “Three things,” my Liberal campaign acquaintance said. “First, we surprised them. They expected us to run away from Dalton, to run on the team and the Liberal brand. We didn’t do that. We put the leader front and centre in our ads and our messaging. As he himself has said, ‘Don’t compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative.'” Yes, that’s the line Keith Davey cooked up for Pierre Trudeau in 1980. There are no new lines any more. “And we changed voters’ minds about Dalton over the course of the campaign.”

Two, the global economy started to look scary again about halfway through the writ period. Nervous voters don’t like risk. On this, the Liberals just caught a little luck.

Third, a couple of things came up to keep Tim Hudak off what the Liberals think was supposed to be his game. He wanted to run as a blandly reassuring alternative to a tired-out premier, very modestly to McGuinty’s right on economics, unremarkable on social issues. Twice Hudak found himself barging into controversies he didn’t need. The first was when the Liberals launched their platform in early September. It included a small amount of money for a tax credit employers could qualify for by hiring new Canadian citizens who’d been in the country less than five years. The first time he was asked about it, by TV interviewer Stephen LeDrew, McGuinty said the tax benefit was for Canadian citizens. But Hudak spent several days calling it a benefit for “foreign workers.”

Now here’s the thing. The federal Conservatives, under Stephen Harper and with Jason Kenney’s assist, have built a voter coalition that includes both immigrants and people who don’t much like immigration. The Hudak Conservatives had done less of that work in the first place, but to the extent they had, running against immigrant workers was a surefire way to underperform with that part of the voter coalition.

Was the McGuinty employer tax credit a trap for Hudak? “Those who think we might do that are thinking too much,” the Liberal campaign guy said. “We never thought it’d be a story at all.”

Then in the campaign’s last week, a Conservative campaign flyer asking all sorts of questions about same-sex curriculum got way more coverage than Hudak wanted to. Taken together, the two issues bookended his campaign and left him looking like a guy who was way more preoccupied with social issues than pocketbook issues.

The end result was quite close in popular vote, with barely 2 points separating Hudak from McGuinty, on extremely low turnout. McGuinty didn’t inspire Ontario, and the Liberals must worry whether the rot has set in for next time, or how to keep that from happening. But rebuilding in government is so much more pleasant than rebuilding in opposition that relief alone will make Liberals cut McGuinty the slack he needs for now.