It was all about him

Stephen Harper's standing declined - big trouble for a party whose entire campaign revolved around the PM

Élections fédérales du 14 octobre 2008

It was written here when the election began that "Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to win a majority government or he will have no one to blame but himself." We're sticking with that assertion today, voting day.
A majority was there when the campaign began, although it would have been tough to achieve. Tough because of something seldom remarked upon but hugely consequential: Incumbent parties almost always lose ground in campaigns. Incumbents get hammered by opposition parties, some of which get equal billing with the governing party.
You could see this at work in the TV debates. Mr. Harper, leader of the largest party, got 22 per cent of the time in the English-language debate; his four opponents split the remaining 78 per cent. The greatest debater in the world, and Mr. Harper is far from that, could not "win" under those loaded circumstances.
So, yes, campaigns hurt incumbent parties, if the past be any guide. Nonetheless, the opportunity presented itself for history not to repeat itself, and for the Tories to get a majority.
Their leader was far more respected than Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, and rather better regarded than NDP Leader Jack Layton. Mr. Harper was running his third election campaign as leader, against Mr. Dion's first, and could therefore have been expected to avoid rookie mistakes.
The Tories had the time and money to prepare for a campaign. They ran ads showing an avuncular Mr. Harper in the days before dropping the writ. They were in the air with what was supposed to be a juggernaut campaign within hours of Mr. Harper seeing the Governor-General. The Conservative "war room" was deemed battle-hardened; sophisticated voter tracking efforts were ready for deployment.
In Quebec, all the attention and money lavished on the province - to say nothing of the existential stroking through the declaration of the Québécois as "nation" - was expected to reap dividends. The Bloc Québécois seemed on the defensive, with up to 20 of its seats in peril. The symbolism of Mr. Harper launching his campaign in Quebec City was apt: Francophones would pursue their self-interest this time through the Conservatives.
Best of all, the Liberals were led by Mr. Dion, whose popularity numbers were in the tank, and whose espousal of a carbon tax in the context of shifting taxes away from those on individuals and companies provided the Tories with a child's play target for negative advertising and scary predictions of economic ruination.
And yet, even before the economic downdraft that began on Wall Street and enveloped all economies, including Canada's, the Conservatives began to make mistakes.
He could not be blamed for the gaffes that marred the first few weeks: the website showing a pooping puffin dumping on Mr. Dion, the staffer who accused a veteran's parent of grieving as a partisan, the revelation of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's partisanship during a conference call about the listeriosis outbreak. These were mistakes by underlings and ministers, which in Mr. Harper's cabinet almost amount to the same thing.
But Mr. Harper did and said some strange things, or authorized policy prescriptions that boomeranged. Itsy-bitsy cuts to two cultural programs in the context of an enlarged arts budget should not have been a problem, despite predictable squawking from the Toronto arts crowd.
In Quebec, however, they became a cause célèbre for nationalists, manna for the Bloc and an entry point to one of those existential arguments almost utterly devoid of factual content - the programs would cost Quebec only about $20-million - but nonetheless rather potent politically.
Then came the tougher measures against juveniles who commit very serious crimes: a vote-winner in suburban English-Canada, or so the Tories believed, but a loser in Quebec. There, the measures reminded voters of the Conservatives' Reform roots, and they recoiled to a place of considerable comfort - the Bloc Québécois - a place for francophones who are no longer much interested in Canada, do not want to assume the responsibility for governing, but still insist on all the advantages of Canada.
Since the Conservative majority depended on big gains in Quebec, the policy errors and the francophones' retreat changed the course of the campaign and almost certainly cost Mr. Harper his majority.
There was more, however. The economic downdraft caught everyone by surprise. No prime minister could emerge unscathed from its ferocity. Suddenly, the Liberals developed a 30-day "Action Plan" and the NDP kept hammering away at lost manufacturing jobs and not enough government money to help beleaguered industries.
The Prime Minister could have emerged only slightly damaged from the downdraft, but for his apparent insensitivity to its impacts on real people. His comment about the downdraft providing a good time to buy stocks was a blunder.
Leave the details aside, the PM's standing declined in the campaign. That decline was particularly troubling for a party whose entire campaign - like the government itself - revolved around Mr. Harper, his image, his persona, his accomplishments, him.
A majority victory, should one unexpectedly emerge, would vindicate Mr. Harper's decision to call the election, the way he waged it, the issues he identified and, of course, his own three years as Prime Minister. A minority, despite so many favourable factors, would mean three elections fought as leader: one defeat and two minorities. He would have to carry the can for that.

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