Harper pays for George W. Bush's sins

Élections fédérales du 14 octobre 2008

Is Stephen Harper the northern George W. Bush? The analogy was a principal theme of both federal election debates this week, with Gilles Duceppe leading the way and the other opposition leaders elbowing each other to keep up. We didn't count, but W. may have been evoked more often in the Canadian debate than in the Joe Biden - Sarah Palin matchup.
It is certainly sad, and sobering, to note the disdain and contempt that many Canadians now reserve for the chief executive of our closest ally and principal trading partner. It's even more sad and sobering to note that this reaction has, for the most part, been richly earned. But Bush doesn't really have much to do with our election. The link pleases those who dislike Harper anyway, but the real question, as the debates give way to the campaign's home stretch, is whether the Harper-is-Bush concept will affect undecided voters.
Once you accept that link, the next step is easy, and sure enough the other leaders asserted bluntly, in their various ways, that Harper couldn't be trusted, was lying, was "a fraud," and so on. We didn't hear anybody evoke the notorious hidden agenda by name, but it was just below the surface.

This limpid illogic reached it nadir with Stéphane Dion, who talked in both languages about Harper's "laissez-faire" policies. After two straight restraint-busting free-spending Conservative budgets, after increased "targeted" support for manufacturing, forestry, and other sectors (yes, even the culture/heritage/sports portfolio), after sending extra billions to the provinces, after bringing in a child-care allowance, and more, Harper can hardly be said to be a small-government minimalist. In some circles he's even under fire for spending far too much.
Beyond the Bush business, the other leaders used the debates to flail away at Harper far more than at each other, although Jack Layton did seem to fluster Dion once or twice in the English debate. Layton hammered away at the Conservative government's tax cuts for big business - carefully omitting the tax cuts for small business and consumers and earners - and Harper offered no defence.
In other ways, too, Harper was his own worst enemy in the debates. He kept calm and projected authority, but he rarely looked at the camera and he seems permanently incapable of showing any emotion. And on the culture-cuts topic, Harper barely explained, in the French debate, the cunning Conservative proposal to give families a $500 tax credit for kids' piano lessons, ballet classes, and the like. This is a spending idea that could augment the culture quotient in every household, instead of subsidizing an artistic elite. He should be trumpeting it.
And then there is the economic crisis, which is surely top-of-mind for millions of Canadians. Denying that some people are now anxious about the global financial turmoil was just foolish. Yes, we have avoided its impact on our financial sector, but not on our personal savings. People care about their savings.
Harper is correct in saying that the elements government can control - firm regulation of the sector, prudent federal budgeting, attentive oversight - are in good shape. The fundamentals of our economy truly are strong. But in a time like this Canadians want to know their leaders understand our concerns, and the PM's bland serenity fell short. He should have shared our pain a little more.
Were these debates useful? They featured four leaders trying to depict Canada as a desolate wasteland getting worse, and one leader insisting that everything is just great. Canadians know that neither version is the country we live in.

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