Second Thots

Sometimes one has to step back, take pause, and have some "second thots"

Friday, July 02, 2004


Where did Harper go wrong?

There are some mixed reviews on Harper's performance in the campaign. They vary from surprise he did as well as he did, breaking through in Ontario and holding on to seats in Atlantic Canada, to a condemnation of his right wing assault on non-Western Canadians.

I happen to be of the belief that the results of the Conservative Party in this election, basically in Ontario, have to be viewed as a somewhat bitter disappointment.

Yes, the party did better than was expected of them in the weeks and months leading up to the election call.

However, as the campaign developed it became clear that Canadians were tired of the Liberals, they wanted change, Paul Martin wasn't providing them with any reason to vote for him, McGuinty handed Harper a gift, and a scandal-plagued and empty Liberal party was giving voters every reason to contemplate another option.

And as the campaign progressed, there is every reason to believe they were seriously considering the Conservatives as that other option.

The Liberals fell, the Conservatives rose. They were tied heading into the debates. The Tories even seemed to be pulling ahead.

Then things started to turn the Liberals' way, and voters en masse proved this point by doing so in large numbers in the last moments of the campaign.

At a time when the Conservatives set themselves up as a 50-50 alternative to a dying Liberal government, swing voters across the country decided to breath new life into Paul Martin and his gang. Voters who were almost screaming for change turned aside the Conservatives as agents for that change.

The Tories did lose out on the game of political expectations. The campaign unfolded in such a way which made them look like they were poised to change the political landscape of this country.

But given the weakness of the Liberal position, I do think it's safe to conclude that the Conservatives could have closed the deal when the opportunity presented itself. They didn't.

Maybe appearances can fool us from time to time. Maybe the Conservatives were never a clear alternative to mainstream voters at such an initial stage of the party's history.

Harper also had a very short time in which to get the party into shape, even though his time as Alliance leader should have taught him a thing or two about federal politics in this country.

My reading of the state of the Liberal Party, however, leads me to believe that a forthcoming presentation of a viable alternative could have prevented a last-minute return to the Grit fold.

So, if I'm right about the fact that Harper lost more than just the election on Monday night, maybe some cheap second-guessing can help us understand where he went wrong.

For starters, he used a general campaign tactic which seemed to work for him in his previous leadership bids. That is, he played it safe in order to stay above the fray and avoid being scared off by anyone. The problem with this approach in this campaign was that it comes up short amid opposition attacks which resonate with voters. Much as with Michael Dukakis in 1988, Harper simply stood there and allowed extreme allegations against him to go unchallenged. I think a more dynamic and responsive leadership style is needed from him - even before election campaigns start.

Harper was also unable to provide positive reasons for voters to choose his Conservatives. He started off the campaign well by sticking with the issue of government accountability, and by defending himself against charges that he was an American (you see, he can do it when he wants). Yet, if you fail to define yourself to the electorate then you leave yourself wide open to opponents who will. By the time the campaign was over, many Canadians had the words, "Hidden Agenda", etched in their brains.

The last two weeks were not good for him. After leaving the debates in good form, his message got sidetracked - some of it the fault of others like Ralph Klein and Randy White, some of it the fault of his own, by talking majority and not backing off comments which accused Paul Martin of supporting child pornography.

And, as bad as the last two weeks were, the last two days were disastrous, when all indications were that that was when voters decided to go Liberal in large numbers.

Harper decided to campaign at an easy pace in him home region. He talked about the West finally getting power. He talked about Paul Martin being desperate by traveling the country to appeal to all Canadians. He talked about an ignominious defeat to be suffered by the Liberal Prime Minister. All of this, I believe, helped convince undecided voters that he was cocky, regional, and unwilling to fight for them. The same could not have been said of Paul Martin.

There are many things to be said in favour of Stephen Harper. It is so easy to criticize after the fact. Harper can't control unwise MPs and even unwiser Ralph Kleins. There is only so much he can do with a new party within a relatively short period of time.

But I do think it is important to avoid the mistakes of the past. I also think it is important to take advantage of golden opportunities when they present themselves.

If Harper has any of the stuff that makes for good national leaders, I think he'll be ready the next time around.

UPDATE: He may also want to think of how he can manage disgruntled PCers. Seeing so many of them leave during the course of the campaign could not have been comforting to unsure voters. I don't know if he can ever lure Joe Clark into the fold. But he was accused of surrounding himself with fellow Alliance people. At the very least, he may want to fight that perception if he chooses to run again, which I think he should.

UPDATE 2: It may also be the case that some of these PCers were just waiting to sabotage the Harper efforts. Having them out of the way may only help him. But I still think he needs to fight their allegations more strenuously, if not even bring some of them back - at least if some of them have any semblance of open-mindedness within the confines of a party truly big-tent in nature. I have my doubts when I listen to people like Joe Clark. I guess only time can really tell, can't it?

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