On Day 1, Stephen Harper got it wrong and Stéphane Dion got it right.
The Conservatives appear to fundamentally misunderstand that a tried and true cudgel with which they have been beating the Liberals for six years has suddenly lost its usefulness. They can no longer call the Liberals corrupt.
The Liberals were never all that corrupt, of course. Proud, arrogant, careless with other people's money, and tolerant of corruption - these accusations were all true, and the Tories rightly exploited the resulting public disgust.
But no politician, Liberal or otherwise, has ever been charged with a criminal offence as a result of the sponsorship, or any other, scandal.
Regardless, the curtain fell on the Liberal-sleaze angle with Mr. Dion's victory. Whatever else he is, he is ethically pure as the driven snow. During the sponsorship mess, he annoyed his mentor, Jean Chrétien, by criticizing the program and the scandal it engendered.
"We kind of insulted people's intelligence by suggesting we could brainwash them with flags," he told reporters after the 2004 election. The Gomery report exonerated Mr. Dion of any responsibility for the program's abuses.
Demonstrably, Mr. Dion is not the tool of the Liberal Party establishment, especially in Quebec, most of whose delegates refused to support him at the leadership convention. His very demeanour exudes grim rectitude.
So as far as sponsorship, corruption and the like is concerned, that narrative is no longer credible, and only embarrasses the narrator. The Tories don't seem to realize it, but it is embarrassing them.
At a press conference after Mr. Dion's victory, Treasury Board President John Baird went straight for the political jugular, as is his wont. "He's one of those Chrétien cabinet ministers from Quebec who sat there throughout the sponsorship scandal and claimed not to know a thing that went on while millions of dollars were stolen."
Makes you cringe, doesn't it?
In Question Period yesterday, the Prime Minister was equally petty when Mr. Dion asked why the government insisted on changing the makeup of judicial advisory committees. "I understand that the policy of the Liberal Party is to consult only lawyers and criminals," Stephen Harper said.
If the Conservative strategy for undermining the new Liberal leader is to claim he is part of the same-old same-old, then the Tories will very soon find themselves in trouble. Visualize Stéphane Dion in your mind. You've got him wearing that backpack, don't you? He is so not like the others.
Perhaps the Conservatives believe they can keep the issue of Liberal corruption alive in Quebec, where the sense of offence over sponsorship is more deeply rooted than in other parts of the country. Yet, even there, other, more existential questions of nation and unity and the purpose of the federal government will determine the outcome of the debate. Even in Quebec, people must surely be ready to move on.
There is no doubt that federal politics is about to become seriously polarized. The question is: What are the poles?
Mr. Dion has no trouble defining his pole: In speeches, in scrums and in Question Period yesterday, he deftly defined the Conservative Party as hard-line neo-conservative, in thrall to the Bush White House. This is exaggerated and unfair - the Harper government is far from being neo-conservative by any reasonable definition of the word - but this is a sellable and potentially winning Liberal strategy.
Mr. Harper, in response, could characterize Mr. Dion as a tax-and-spend Liberal who will destroy Alberta's energy industry and cripple Ontario's manufacturing economy, while simultaneously stoking separatist sentiment in Quebec, all because of his ill-considered need to tilt at environmental windmills while refusing to recognize the reality of Quebec culture.
All of that is an exaggeration, too. But to characterize Mr. Dion as just another shill for the Liberal mafia? You'll regret it, Mr. Harper, if you even try.