Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

11/5/2005

I’ve known politicians, and you, Mr. Martin, are no politician

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:25 pm.

Our poor Prime Minister - even when he wins, he loses:

Canadian voters have forcefully rejected Mr. Justice John Gomery’s exoneration of Prime Minister Paul Martin for the sponsorship scandal in a new poll that vaults the Conservatives in front of the Liberals for the first time since last spring.

You know, this never would have happened under a Chretien government. Because Chretien’s bumbling-fool act was just that: an act. He wasn’t such a…such a bad politician that he’d ever openly and repeatedly declare his innocence when implicated in a scandal, offer himself to be judged by the courts, be exonerated, and then somehow get slaughtered in the polls anyway. Seriously, how uncharismatic do you have to be to have people hate you even more after they receive evidence that you didn’t do the thing they hated you for in the first place? (Mind you, there’s a simpler explanation for these poll results: Canadians aren’t favouring the Conservatives because of Gomery; they’re favouring the Conservatives because the Conservative leader haven’t been talking very much lately. That party’s failure to stick to that winning strategy during actual campaigns is what causes their numbers to plummet in the weeks leading up to elections. See also: federal elections, 2004, 2000.)

Under a Chretien government, this wouldn’t have gone to the courts in the first place. It would have spent a few days, maybe a few weeks, in the news. There’d've been some murmurs about a sponsorship scandal at some point, and then Chretien would have dismissed them. He’d have been hounded by reporters for a few minutes, and he’d have made some statement of the form, “Geeez, are you still thinking about this? Get over it! So someone didn’t keep track of some money a few years ago. Who cares? Geeeez!” This statement would have gotten a lot of airplay, and then Canadians would have spent a few days, maybe a few weeks, reacting indignantly: The arrogance! Can you believe it? Our prime minister is such a disgrace! And then something else would have bumped this complete non-issue off the front pages. No one would have even thought of calling, or demanding, a snap election. A few months or years later, there’d have been another election anyway, and Canadians from Newfoundland to British Columbia would have gone on and on about how they couldn’t stand that fool, Chretien, but then they’d have given him another majority government anyway.

The reason that Chretien had no trouble winning majority governments and (grudging) support, while Martin is struggling mightily in both areas, isn’t because scandals came to light during the Martin years, while the Chretien government was scandal-free. Oh, no - apparently there’ve been enough scandals during the Chretien years to fill a book. But the first line of the single review of that book, from one Brent Colbert, says it all: Just finished this book and couldn’t believe how many of the scandals I had forgot over the last decade. Oh, Brent, we’ve all forgotten them. We’ve forgotten them because Chretien, unlike Martin, had taken to heart the first fundamental rule of high school debating, which is this: you must concede nothing to the opposition. Even when they’re right. Especially when they’re right. When your opponents accuse you of, say, corruption or fiscal mismanagement, you obviously don’t confess. Everyone knows that. Less obvious is the fact that you also shouldn’t deny it. Because when you deny it, you’re agreeing with your opponents in that corruption or fiscal mismanagement is wrong. You’re handing them that point, and they will run with it. The best strategy, as we learned from the Right Honourable Mr. Chretien, is to roll your eyes and call your opponents stinky poo-poo heads. You’re above their stinky poo-poo head accusations, and you don’t want to talk about them anymore. And poof! Those accusations don’t spend six months on the front pages of newspapers, and you win.

Maybe I’m giving the guy too much credit. Maybe he was simply, as many people said, inarticulate. Maybe it wasn’t a strategic evasion of big questions so much as an accidental avoidance of them that kept his scandals off the front pages and his ass in the prime minister’s office.

But in that case, more power to him. Man was a born politician. You can’t teach that sort of talent.

(Looking for intelligent commentary about the sponsorship scandal and Gomery inquiry? Declan’s got it. In general, if you’re ever looking for commentary about Canadian politics or journalism from someone who knows what’s going on, and who can get through a sentence without snark, you’re a lot better off reading him than me.)

8 Comments

  1. There are lots of funny things about Chretien, the funniest of which (to me) is that I still like him. I thought it was an absolute hoot when, at the Gomery inquiry, he started pulling out golf balls with presidential names on them. Arrogant Montreal lawyer makes fun of…. arrogant Montreal judge? I’m up for that! And hey, if I weren’t a vegetarian, I’d probably put pepper on my steak too!

    - PhilipJ — 11/5/2005 @ 11:48 pm

  2. See, for me it’s not that I still like Chretien, or even that I ever liked him - it’s that it wasn’t until he was out of office that I realized what a poltiical genius he was. He took the “little guy from Shawinigan” label and ran with it. He let people underestimate him during his entire career, and that gave him this massive edge. He wasn’t a moron, he just played one in the PMO. And then when Martin took over - I don’t think anyone anticipated what a loser he’d be. Sure, some people disagreed with his policies, but I think that we all expected him to be something of a strong leader. But everything Martin does highlights those skills that Chretien had so mastered that we took them entirely for granted. Chretien, for instance, exuded calm. Nothing seemed to faze him too much. Martin, meanwhile, always talks as though he’s just downed six cups of coffee. Or uppers. Whenever I hear him speak, I find myself getting anxious and thinking, “is something terribly wrong? Should I be worried?”

    And man, was Chretien ever entertaining.

    - Moebius Stripper — 11/6/2005 @ 12:08 am

  3. You never noticed while he was in office? Around my family, we called him the Teflon man… nothing stuck to Chretien. ;) Of course, my dad is conservative, and my mom and I are NDP.

    - Andrea — 11/6/2005 @ 9:57 am

  4. I still predict a Liberal victory. Unless they can get rid of Harper, or maybe give him lockjaw — look! he can’t talk! but he will still help the country he just cares THAT MUCH! — although I suspect that somehow he could still screw up an election.

    Of course, I haven’t been following this, because over half the Gomery articles end up writing about the referendum, and will there be another referendum, and how do you feel about them when you’re on cocaine, etc, and it upsets me too much.

    - wolfangel — 11/6/2005 @ 10:43 am

  5. Chr├ętien is so canny it’s uncanny. And for all his dysfluencies and malapropisms, he doesn’t seem to have been ridiculed in the same way that George W. Bush is ridiculed for his; with Chr├ętien it was always the arrogant statements (like the Spraypec comment) that got attention, not the just plain dumb ones.

    And with all due respect to Declan, I’m not sure I could stand reading about politics without at least one good dose of snark per sentence.

    - Q. Pheevr — 11/6/2005 @ 11:20 am

  6. Thanks! Although I agree with Q that snark and politics do go together pretty naturally.

    A couple of comments: I agree with what you say about Chretiens political instincts. Still, he had the advantage of facing a splintered opposition. If you look at the elections Chretien won (1993, 1997, 2000) the Liberals consitently got support in the 38-41% range across the country, while the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Alliance combined for something in the mid-30’s. But because they were split it into two parties, they weren’t represented in seats like they were in votes.

    Looking at the old election results, one another possible explanation for falling Liberal support struck me, which is that Martin is generally seen to be more right wing than Chretien. And, since Martin took over, support for right wing parties has fallen to roughly 30%, while Liberal support has stayed the same or (if you think this latest poll is more than just a blip) dropped a few points. Even this latest poll with the Conservatives ahead onlyhas them at 31% (they got 30% in the last election). Which means the votes had to go somewhere and they have gone to the NDP, the Green Party and the Bloc. So its possible Martin is just losing support from the left side of the political spectrum and the Liberal inability to win a majority / Conservative lead in the polls has little to do with the sponsorship scandal (except in Quebec where it is definitely a factor).

    Still, you’re right that Martin does a lousy job with media relations. He seemed to think that people would make a distinction between bad old Chretien Liberals and shiny new Martin Liberals which he should have known just wasn’t a winning plan. You can’t split a brand.

    One final comment, I don’t really put a whole lot of stock in this poll. The lne you quoted notes this is the first time the Conservatives have been ahead since last spring - i.e. the first time they’ve been ahead since the last time Gomery was front page news for a couple of days before people forgot about it and the polls returned to ‘normal’.

    Plus, the article says, “On a related question, 60 per cent said they don’t believe Mr. Martin’s contention that he was not involved in the scandal, while only 33 per cent do believe him. Moreover, 62 per cent of those surveyed said Mr. Martin’s apologies for the scandal are a desperate effort to stay in office. Only 22 per cent believed the Liberal Party is beginning to accept responsibility for the program’s abuses.”
    But I suspect those responses are less a personal comment on Martin than just general cynicism about politics.

    They probably could have asked the same questions, substituted in ‘Stephen Harper’ for ‘Paul Martin’, and the ‘Conservatives’ for the ‘Liberals’, and the results would only have shifted a few points.

    Asking people if a politician is trying to stay in office, or was involved in a scandal, or if a party is accepting responsiblity for what they’ve done? You might as well do a poll and ask if people think Martin (or Harper, or politicians in general) are overpaid.

    - Declan — 11/6/2005 @ 9:30 pm

  7. At this point I’m mystified by Layton’s strategy. He essentially holds the balance of power now, as the spring madness showed the Conservative/Bloc can’t bring the government down on their own.

    The only possible benefit to Layton would be another Liberal minority with more NDP seats (and more leverage). But this seems a pretty chancy outcome given that all the other possible outcomes — a Liberal majority or a Conservative government of any kind — would be terrible for him.

    The Liberals know this, so they would presumably never expect Layton to actually bring the government down as long as they’re feeding him the odd tidbit. So, to get any kind of real action, Layton has to play chicken, which may be what this is all about. (That seems to be what Harper thinks.)

    - saforrest — 11/8/2005 @ 9:40 am

  8. Ooh, what’s this I have here? Ten unscheduled minutes of my time? Hooray!

    Wolfangel - yes, a Liberal victory is almost certain. The reason is because during the upcoming campaign, Harper is going to start talking, and that never works out well for him. (Granted, Martin talking tends not to work out very well for him, either, but at least Martin can point at Harper and say, “look, at least I’m not acting like HIM”. Aside: I had considered voting Liberal in 2004, but it seemed like the Martin campaign was specifically designed with the purpose of losing my vote. I went to a local all-candidates debate, and ended up voting for the sole candidate whom I didn’t want to punch at the end of the hour.)

    Declan, re Chretien running against a divided right, while that wasn’t the case with Martin - true. However, when the Tories and Alliance merged, I kept recalling a series of polls that I’d seen over the past few years: the ones that revealed that the majority of PC voters had the Liberals, not the Alliance, as their second choice. (Which rang true for me: I really liked Joe Clark, and would have very seriously considered voting for a PC candidate. I would not have voted for an Alliance candidate.) So I thought that that would be reflected in the merged Conservative party - and it was, to some extent. (Conservative support in 2004 was less than PC + Alliance support in 2000.) But not nearly as much as I’d anticipated. In particular, I remember that the PCs got most of their seats from the Maritimes in 2000 - a region previously quite hostile to the Alliance. But the new Conservatives did win some seats out East.

    Saforrest - I think that Layton wanted to make good on his threat, that’s all - but who knows? And I wouldn’t be surprised if he believes that a Liberal majority or Conservative government of any kind are unlikely at this point - and I’d be inclined to agree with him there. (In 2004, the NDP lost three or four seats by razor-thin margins; he’s in a good position to make gains, I think. But I’m always wrong about these things.)

    Oh, and regarding what I said about getting through a sentence without snark - I meant that literally. I’m a fan of snark in political writing - I find it dreadfully boring otherwise - but there’s such a thing as overdoing it. I get all worked up over an article I’ve read two paragraphs of before I startwriting about it, and three paragraphs in, I’ve gotten buried in sarcasm and forgotten what I was talking about in the first place.

    - Moebius Stripper — 11/9/2005 @ 9:58 pm

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