Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.
In one of those magical moments brought to you by television, Canadians could watch their leaders debating each other at the same time as Americans were watching theirs. The contrast was illuminating.
The candidates spoke in different countries on different topics. But if you opted for the split screen, you could learn something sad about politics in America.
And if you’re Canadian, you could feel superior about your country. Smugness comes too easily to Canadians, yet this time with reason.
Consider the vice-presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden of Delaware and Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Actually, consider Ms. Palin.
After her performance, commentators drew liberally from a fund of flattering adjectives. She was “feisty”, “quick”, “resilient”, “aggressive”, “combative.” She was also “folksy”, “colloquial”, and “populist”.
The normally sensible David Brooks of The New York Times was sympathetic while Rich Lowry of National Review was smitten. Others were more neutral. Beyond the paid partisans on CNN, few dismissed her out of hand.
And yet, to other eyes, her performance in the debate in particular – and her candidacy in general – is a farce. Opéra bouffe. An absurdity. Only a few conservative commentators (such as David Frum and Charles Krauthammer) have had the courage to say so, most choosing more genteel words.
Perhaps they worry about alienating the folks who love Ms. Palin. Perhaps they worry about being seen as elitist. They don’t want to call her what she is: incurious, untutored and unready — Annie Oakley without Annie Oakley’s virtues.
But in the dominion of the dilettante, Sarah Palin is queen. She isn’t just the descent of politics; she is, in a sense, the end of politics – a conventional politics of standards, rules and minimum expectations.
Up to now, candidates for the vice-presidency have had credentials. Since 1960, they have included Henry Cabot Lodge, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, Sargent Shriver, Walter Mondale, Gerald Ford, George W. Bush, Robert Dole, Geraldine Ferraro, Jack Kemp, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman.
Some would become president. Most would not. All were persons of distinction, both in politics and in life. Even those who were failures – the corrupt Spiro Agnew and the dense Dan Quayle – could be seen as credible, if unorthodox, running mates when they were chosen.
Sarah Palin is neither credible nor distinguished, and she hasn’t the humility to see it. Her audacity is breathtaking. Once upon a time she would have been disqualified from consideration, even if she were from a strategic vote-rich state, which she isn’t. No serious nominee would have named her.
But the standard has so fallen so far that it is now acceptable – indeed laudable – to invite an ingénue like Sarah Palin to run with a septuagenarian who has had four bouts of cancer.
It doesn’t matter that she has been governor for just 18 months. Or that she attended five colleges in six years. Or that she cannot name the magazines or newspapers she reads. Or that she has travelled nowhere. Ideology trumps everything.
In the debate she struggled stringing together a sentence –Eliza Doolittle before Henry Higgins taught her to talk. Droppin’ the ‘g’s”, exclaiming “doggone!” she was like a jumped-up cheerleader in pompoms running for Student Council. She mangled words, mispronounced names. She consistently ignored questions, which the weak moderator allowed to go unchallenged.
Predictably, she “exceeded expectations.” She stood and spoke and neither drooled nor fainted. That was good enough.
Against her, Joe Biden was reserved, authoritative, polite and polished. She called him “Joe” and he called her “Governor.” He responded coolly to her volley of misrepresentations and veil of lies – deceit being her currency, from bridges to earmarks to Russia. She cannot even quote Madeleine Albright correctly.
Now, intoxicated with self-importance, she barnstorms around America tying Barack Obama to a terrorist and suggesting Mr. Obama is unAmerican. This is now the strategy of slur and smear. And if you wondered, John McCain approved this ad.
So, if you needed some relief the other night, you could turn the channel to Stephen, Stéphane, Jack, Gilles and Liz. Their discussion was barbed and stormy, but also useful and intelligent.
In terms of education, experience or intellect, no one could say the leaders of the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats are imposters. They spoke in both English and in French, over two nights, gamely accepting that a second language is a requirement of leaders in Canada.
All three have earned their stripes in the politics. None is charismatic or inspiring or Ms. Congeniality, though each has some humility.
Whatever their views, they spoke well of us and our politics. No, none is Barack Obama. But none is Sarah Palin, either.
This column first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Oct. 7
Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, is the author of Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson.
As dusk fell, a man, a woman and their dog made their way through the Rockeries, the crimson gardens high above the Ottawa River. The couple was followed by a bodyguard, less relaxed, wearing an earpiece.
The air was still. The afternoon sun was fading into the folds of the sky.
In the middle distance, you could see the re-erected Corinthian columns salvaged from the portico of the old Carnegie Library in Ottawa. To these strollers facing calamity, these faux ruins might have seemed a metaphor too far.
On this trail, though, there were no signs or handbills. There were no handlers or hangers-on. When a pair of cyclists wheeled by the couple, no hands were extended and no votes were solicited.
If Stéphane Dion, his wife and his dog found some peace the other night, he surely deserved it. After all, it was his birthday. He was 53. There was little to celebrate.
Did he need any more reminders of his misery? There he was, on Saturday, staring out quizzically from the front page of The Citizen. The headline was devastating: “Fortress to flophouse? Has the once impregnable Liberal Party of Canada mortgaged its hold on power?”
Elsewhere in the newspaper, Mr. Dion could read headlines declaring “Liberals ‘are falling apart’” and “Rough day for Liberals.”
Oh, the agony of being Stéphane Dion. Oh, the agony of being a Liberal.
If he had the stomach to read on, Mr. Dion could learn about the collapse of the party which has held power for most of Canada’s 141 years. He could learn how things are “so bad that some analysts believe the Liberals are about to enter an extended – eight year? – wander through the political wilderness.”
No “analysts” actually said that in the article. No matter. There was more than enough bad news for Mr. Dion to digest on his twilight constitutional.
He could read how his party has no money, how its “Green Shift” is a political loser and how his successors are cheering his demise. He could also read about the rise of the Conservatives, and Stephen Harper’s grand plan of building an enduring Conservative majority in Canada as strategist Karl Rove dreamed of building an enduring Republican majority in the United States.
The besieged Mr. Dion could also learn, if he hadn’t heard enough, of the country’s new political realignment, growing out of an unprecedented polarization between the fragmented parties of the left against the Conservatives on the right.
And you know, the journalistic hyperbole notwithstanding, all this may be true. Perhaps the Liberals are through. Perhaps the party’s over.
It may also be true that Stéphane Dion is the catalyst, though surely not the cause. The trouble began with the vainglorious Paul Martin, Jr., who slayed his patron, Jean Chrétien, touching off an internecine struggle worthy of an Italian opera.
But that’s another story Mr. Dion will have much time to contemplate in political exile. To believe the death notices, that is what awaits him on the morning of October 15.
So assuming that the Liberals are going to disintegrate in two weeks – which, let us hasten to caution, won’t necessarily be so if Canadians deny the Conservatives a majority — what is left for the obituary writers to say about Stéphane Dion? What to say as the vultures circle and the hyenas cackle?
Well, quite a lot.
Mr. Dion is a Canadian who fought for Canada in Quebec in the referendum campaign of 1995. Few others of his ilk did. Mr. Dion exposed the sophistry of the secessionists. It took guts.
This is a loyalist who spearheaded the Clarity Act of 2000. The sovereigntists again threatened chaos. But it passed, and it makes an ambiguous referendum question and a unilateral declaration of independence harder. It took guile.
This is a street fighter who refused to let Mr. Martin take away his seat. This is a reformer who thinks that global warming needs a creative response.
This is a decent man caught in a rough game. Pooping puffins. Demonization. Humiliation. Mr. Dion as reckless, dangerous, unsteady, awkward, hopeless.
In truth, he was never cut out for it; his style is pedantic, his English ragged. He is stubborn and proud, which take you only so far in this game.
In politics, flaws are magnified mercilessly, especially in the age of the Internet. Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark, Walter Mondale and Adlai Stevenson all offered their splendid corpses to the cause of political science. They were glorious failures, which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t honour their service.
When Mr. Dion leaves, there will be more debts than tears — and surely no thanks. Remember, politics is a blood sport.
But there will be more walks in the park, and happier birthdays.
This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.
Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, is the author of Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson. Email: email@example.com\.
Among the blizzard of polls appearing every day of this campaign, the most intriguing may be this one: 52 percent of Canadians worry about giving the Conservatives a majority.
They appear to be concerned about handing the government carte blanche, or four or five more years of unfettered, unchecked government.
In other words, the Conservatives unbound. Stephen Harper unplugged. Any leader’s fantasy.
If this kind of anxiety exists in Canada, it’s because that 52 per cent of Canadians think that the Conservatives would surprise or disappoint them with what they would do with a majority. That might mean cutting funding to the CBC or re-visiting abortion or capital punishment, which social conservatives oppose.
But if the second part of this poll is right, the anxiety of Canadians doesn’t mean much. Asked whether they would change their vote to stop a Conservative majority, 81 per cent said no.
The prospect of a Conservative majority apparently doesn’t unnerve Canadians as deeply as it did in 2006, when the Conservatives were held to a minority, or in 2004, when they lost. Both times the Liberals argued that the Conservatives had “a secret agenda” and couldn’t be trusted with a majority.
Now, if it it is true that half of Canadians “worry” about a majority but four-fifths will do nothing to prevent it — such as strategic voting — the dynamic of this campaign may have decisively shifted.
It may explain why the Conservatives began the campaign predicting that they would win only a minority, afraid to raise the prospect of a majority. Worried about driving frightened voters to the Liberals, they sought to lower expectations and hope that a polarized electorate would deliver their majority on October 14.
But they’re less shy now. Harper may still be wary of using the “M” word too much, but he is asking for a stronger “mandate” to free his government from the scrutiny of those left-of-centre parties in Parliament.
He has reason to be confident. While no polls shows him winning more than 40 percent of the vote, the level of support necessary for a majority in Parliament, he still remains at least 10 points ahead of the Liberals.
Deep down, Canadians may not like Stephen Harper very much and even may not trust him with a majority, which is why he can’t crack 40 per cent. But because they like other parties more than they fear his, they may give him his wish anyway.
This column originally appeared in the Metro newspapers.
Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, is the author of Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson.
Here are some questions that should be asked at this week’s debates but likely won’t be answered.
Christopher Waddell is associate director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University and a former Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief, former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and election night executive producer for CBC TV News.
So Stephen Harper is now training his artillery on artists, actors, writers and poets. He sees votes in beating up the country’s cultural elite.
“I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a bunch of people, you know, at a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers, claiming their subsidies are not high enough … I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people,” he said on Tuesday this week.
A rich gala. Subsidies. Ordinary people. Here is a populist’s lament. Mr. Harper didn’t use the word “elite”. He didn’t have to.
He wants the people to know that he doesn’t like this pretentious crowd, which is why you won’t find him at those fancy fundraisers at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. He sends his wife instead.
Here’s the spirit of George Wallace, the scrappy, segregationist governor of Alabama, who gleefully painted his enemies as “pointy-headed intellectuals.” When Mr. Wallace poured out his invective, you could see the dirt under his fingernails and the sweat on his brow.
Mr. Harper is no George Wallace, but his broadside shouldn’t surprise anyone in a targeted campaign pitched to specific voters. The point is to create differences between us (the people) and them (the snobs), playing off one against each other, appealing to that deep well of resentment in the land of the Tall Poppy.
This is a strategy. It is the same reason that Mr. Harper proposes cracking down on juvenile crime, even as criminologists tell him crime isn’t rising and his punishments won’t work. No matter; tough talk sells among rock-hard conservatives.
Ironically, the Prime Minister has spent the campaign trying to show his soft side – wearing a sweater, kissing babies, playing the piano. Now he’s showing off his folksiness. Soon Mr. Harper, who has an MA in economics, will start droppin’ his “g’s.”
But culture matters. While Mr. Harper’s $45-million in cuts to the arts may have little “resonance” in English-speaking Canada, they are an issue in Quebec, where both Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton are exploiting the issue. Mr. Dion even announced his promise to increase spending on the arts last weekend in Place des Arts in Montreal.
Mr. Harper knows this, which is why he isn’t pushing the anti-cultural line in Quebec, where he sees his majority. When he was asked to repeat his “gala” comment in French, he shrewdly refused.
(This column originally appeared in the Metro newspapers.)
Andrew Cohen is a member of the faculty of the School of Journalism and COmmunication at Carleton University and most recently the author of Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson.
David McKie, one of our sessional instructors at the School of Journalism and Communication, examines food safety in Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The politics page at globeandmail.com is featuring a story today headlined: Layton hints at possible Liberal-NDP coalition
The lead says: NDP Leader Jack Layton refused Monday to rule out the possibility of entering an alliance with the federal Liberals to prevent another Harper government.
How many weasel words and phrases can we find here?
Hints is popular when the people being written about don’t actually say what the headline writer wishes they had said.
Possible is another qualifier word. What else did Jack Layton hint is possible? I suppose that until the polls close Oct. 14 he can say that the New Democrats could possibly form a majority government.
“Refused … to rule out” is another weasely formation.
I’ve been tempted to use the same phrase myself when politicians have been performing the dance of the seven veils. But I prefer to cast the hinted at possibility in a more positive frame. How about this? Jack Layton left the door open to a possible coaltion with the Liberals. It works better as a lead.
Reporter and editors actually hate these kinds of stories. They don’t deserve the headline play the Layton story got at globeandmail.com today. Yet they can’t be ignored until we start hearing politicians speaking candidly.
Jeff Sallot teaches journalism at Carleton University. He is a former Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and has covered nine federal elections.
The Ottawa Sun’s Greg Weston reports Nanos Research poll numbers today suggesting Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are on track for a majority.
Reporting from the campaign trail in Quebec, Weston says Nanos found that even among Liberal voters 38 per cent indicate they “are OK with the prospect of Harper’s having a majority.”
Another assessment of the campaign from colleague Andrew Cohen in today’s Ottawa Citizen.
Colleague Andrew Cohen writes about the campaign and Canadians in today’s Ottawa Citizen.
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