Worse, so far, than the spectacle of nakedly ambitious Tories elbowing each other out of the way, was the spectacle of mindless media hordes crowding around everything that looks like a candidate, crying out something that sounds like “Willya? Willya? Willya?”
Almost as bad as that were the facile analyses, the endless backgrounders, the instant profiles—the net effect of it all being a complete weariness with the race before it had even begun. It is what happens when we in the media decide that we have to tell the public everything all at once, and before we know it for certain. As always, our sense of what the public wants and needs in the way of information is so bad that we will have tired of delivering the information at precisely the time the people decide that they are ready to hear it.
This is how policy gets lost. Just when the people want to know where Candidate A stands, we will have decided that the Canadian public has had it up to here with Candidate A Instead, we will go on with our plan, which by that time will have us doing profiles of Candidate C’s pollster, analyses of the color of Candidate B’s campaign buttons and in-depth coverage of the convention cuisine.
It is what always happens, but each time it happens it seems to be worse than the last time. The improved technology at our disposal has allowed us to be stupider faster, and on a larger scale, than ever before.
Meanwhile, there is the race, which everyone is assuming will not be about policy. But everyone could be wrong. In looking at the candidates, there is the danger that we will too readily accept the line coming from the Liberals and NDP: that Campbell, Charest, Beatty et al were all present at the cabinet table and therefore, (a) are no different from Brian Mulroney and (b) must take responsibility for all his policies, from free trade to privatization to cutbacks.
The improved technology at our disposal has allowed us to be stupider faster, and on a larger scale, than ever before
Well, we are all grown-ups here. Do we really believe that Conservative ministers would have run howling in protest from the cabinet table whenever they disagreed with a policy? Democratic politics does not work that way. It is about compromise and trade-offs, giving on this issue and getting on the next
Consequently, we would also be wrong to assume that the policies associated with Mulroney will automatically live on in a party led by any of his ministers. The policies of Mulroney are not the same as the policies of Stanfield, which were not the same as the policies of Diefenbaker. Mulroney, himself, it is worth remembering, opposed free trade with the United States when he ran for the Tory leadership in 1983. Somehow, he evolved and somehow his successor will evolve. The trick will be for the successor to move away from the Mulroney policies while seeming to honor them. It is a trick that can be done. It has been done many times before.
The traditional way is to announce that the old policies succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and what seem to be contradictory policies now are really the old policies adapted to meet changing circumstances. There are other ways, too, perhaps
better ones, and a new breed of politicians and backroom professionals will undoubtedly find them.
Will policies matter? Those who think the candidates are all the same will say no. And recent history says no, too. In Leaders and Lesser Mortals, a fascinating and intelligent political book published last year, John Laschinger and Geoffrey Stevens cite the backroom politician’s awareness that “policy is mainly for show. It is something to put in the window while the real work goes on behind the backroom curtains.”
That analysis accurately reflects the cynicism that has characterized the operation of the political process in recent years. It was not long ago, as John Sawatsky noted in his book Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition, that the future prime minister, then a candidate for the party leadership, scribbled out a ninepoint constitutional program on the back of a Quebecair air-sickness bag in response to criticism that he lacked a constitutional program. He later added another point to bring the number up to the requisite 10.
Still, there are signs that policy can no longer be taken so lightly, signs that the would-be Tory leaders will have to heed. One is the degree to which that cynicism has infected the voters. They now know all the tricks, helped by the media’s newfound fascination with campaign strategy and tactics. When, for example, a party holds back its platform so as not to be attacked on it, the voters know what’s going on. Thus, a tactic traditionally praised as “clever” by political pros backfires, because the voters can see through it.
Conversely, a tactic usually dismissed as “risky,” such as Audrey McLaughlin’s release in February of a detailed NDP economic program may now win the respect of the voters, in part because they appreciate the riskiness of it
The Tory candidates will have to put something in the window, to be sure. And not just anything. Even in these cynical times, the voters want to believe that candidates stand for something more than power for themselves. What goes in the window need not be what Mulroney would have put in the window. The voters are smart enough to know that party policy is not forever.
In the case of Brian Mulroney, it can be argued that voter cynicism backfired on the voter. The cynical voter did not believe that Mulroney would actually do what he said he would do—such as put in free trade and the GST. But Mulroney did, proving that keeping one’s promises can be as politically dangerous as breaking them.
Now, the voter is alert to all the tricks, wary of politicians who make promises and wary of politicians who don’t. The mood is unsettled, and the voters are capable of doing just about anything, as people like George Bush and David Peterson have discovered. In the absence of magical new political tactics, there remains the straightforward expression of ideas the would-be leader actually believes in. It’s a strategy so crazy it might just work.
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