Who will stop Stephen Harper?

As I watch with alarm Stephen Harper's lead over the Liberals solidify, even as he displays contempt for climate change efforts, and disdain for parliament, I am reminded of Ronald Reagan. What I remember is this: on almost every major issue on which he took a strong public stand, he was opposed by a majority of Americans. But that did not stop them from supporting him, giving him high ratings as President -- and re-electing him.

What explains the contradiction? Americans saw in Reagan a man who, specific policies aside, believed strongly in what he was doing. And conversely, they saw in the Democrats a party of shameless opportunists who would claim to believe in anything if it got them a few extra votes. They were tired of trying to decipher the complexities of the issues, tired of the spin, distrustful of government and the media. Their default position was to go with the guy who seemed to say what he meant and mean what he said. They were looking for someone with principles -- and apparently any principles would do.

If Stephen Harper is Ronald Reagan then Michael Ignatieff seems destined to play the role of Hubert Humphrey or Bill Clinton or Al Gore -- Democrats with infinitely flexible principles and an ethical relativism that has degraded democratic politics in the U.S. The Liberal Party of Canada is the classic party of opportunism whose century of success as the natural governing party was predicated on running from the left with progressive policies, and then governing from the right, with policies designed to favour Bay Street. It worked so long as it was well-executed, and the party maintained internal unity and self discipline.

But now the Liberals are neither united nor disciplined. Paul Martin's ruthless ten year assault on his own party in aid of becoming its leader is still itself playing out in new incarnations of backstabbing and public disputes. So divided by the trench warfare between the two camps that no one within the ranks of party could lead it without being immediately assassinated, they went to the U.S. recruit an outsider with no battle-baggage.

But what they got was a postmodern academic with no convictions that couldn't be trumped by particular circumstance. A human rights advocate who okays torture; a leader whose philosophy dictates that he can't feel strongly about anything -- for whom right and wrong are so intertwined he just can't be sure which is which.

Such a leader may well be incapable of fighting the pitbull ruthlessness of Stephen Harper whose passion for dismantling Canada knows no bounds. Ignatieff's persona is that of the effete snob personally offended by a man who refuses to play by the rules. But he can't adjust and recognize that it is Harper who is now making the rules and thus defining the landscape on which the battle takes place.

To his credit, Ignatieff has had some promising moments in the past few months -- as when he mused aloud about the necessity of (ultimately) raising taxes to deal with the structural deficit. But he didn't have the courage to stick to it and the media and his own party smacked him so hard he almost forgot he'd ever said it. And his messaging on Harper was dead on. He attacked him on the tax issue: "We pay taxes, Mr. Harper, because we're all in this together. It costs us something, but it makes Canada the place it is: a place where we look out for each other." And he revealed the theme on which he should fight the next election: "Stephen Harper ...believes that the only good government is no government at all." He topped it off, at about the time he was going to force an election, with "We can do better" which sounds a bit like "A better world is possible," the theme of the World Social Forums.

Combine these themes -- and all the sub-themes they harbour -- with a campaign using Liberal veterans to tag Harper with all the frightening, anti-Canada statements he has made in the past, and Ignatieff would begin to claw back the ground he has lost in the past two months. And most importantly, he could claw it back from the radical libertarians how running the show, and not the NDP. But these gems come in fits and starts and there is no momentum.

As for the NDP, it, too, is operating well below its potential. The longer Jack Layton is in Ottawa the more trapped he seems to become in the daily obsession with tactics. The NDP will never form the government (Quebec ensures this) and its strength therefore is squandered in this endless search for the perfect tactical maneuver. That game makes sense for the two contending parties but the NDP's strength is its vision (it's got to be there, probably locked up in a back room so it won't provoke anyone).

The NDP has no coherent vision that it is willing to boast about, just a series of disconnected policies, some of them admittedly very good but all of them harnessed to the singular strategy of replacing the Liberals. This is the critical weakness of the NDP -- it has decided that it will present itself as the real government in waiting with Jack Layton as prime minister. This strategy all but destroys any possibility of appealing to Canadians on the basis of a hopeful vision of what the country could be. Inadvertently, the NDP hobbles itself in the contest for hearts and minds.

Instead of boldly contrasting itself with Harper's dystopic vision of the country and the ruination of Canada's international reputation, the NDP attacks the Liberals, acquiesces to policies such as Harper's draconian crime bills, and allows free votes on the long gun registry. Then there is Layton's personal musing about eliminating income taxes for small business (lost revenue: $5 billion a year).

The NDP seems so caught in the minutiae of tactical maneuvering that it cannot see the forest for the trees. The constant opportunist calculations are reducing the NDP to the ethical equivalent of the U.S. Democratic Party (one party fundraiser even referred to the party as the Democratic Party even though the suggested name change was never debated at the party's convention). Their strategy of slowly replacing the Liberals is like slow suicide -- at the end of the process they will of necessity become the Liberals.

Does being bold entail risks? Of course. Could the NDP lose seats in the next election? Yes, but they might anyway -- as they certainly would have done had there been a fall election. Wouldn't it be better to risks seats by being bold and visionary, inspiring Canadians to think big, rather than risk them racing to the bottom with the Liberals assuming Canadians are too dull and unimaginative to reclaim their country?

If neither the Liberals nor the NDP find the courage to present a vision to the country and redefine the political discourse, it is virtually certain that Stephen Harper will be prime minister after the next election. But if even one of them manages, they could save the country.

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