Hyde in office, Jekyll in defeat (National Post, January 25, 2006)
It can be anti-climactic to finally get what you've long wanted. It isn't that the Conservatives didn't win big enough to please me; it was that the Liberals didn't lose big enough. I admit I longed for a Liberal rout, including the loss of Paul Martin's seat.
But my political bloodlust dissipated in Monday night's wee hours, when Martin delivered his gracious concession and retirement speech. He revealed himself as once again the benign, civilized Dr. Jekyll he was before power -- or, more accurately, the fear of losing it -- turned him into the erratic, irrational Mr. Hyde.
Many people have expressed a keen sense of disappointment in Martin's leadership. I wasn't the least bit disappointed, since I had no expectations of good leadership to begin with. On the other hand, many Canadians remain "scared" of Stephen Harper, and I never was. Why?
How you feel about a political leader depends a lot on the point at which you begin to invest -- or disinvest -- yourself in his or her political advancement. Once you've placed your faith in a potential leader, it's hard later to admit you showed poor judgment. When he stumbles, the tendency is to focus on your man's basic strengths and make excuses for the occasional weaknesses -- even when the weaknesses are more than occasional and the strengths were illusory. The opposite is also true. Once you've internalized the notion that a candidate is stupid or scary, you don't want to be proven wrong.
We saw this phenomenon following George W. Bush's metamorphosis after 9/11. Unprepossessing before the attacks, he exercised leadership in its purest form in their aftermath, but his detractors couldn't admit it: They'd invested themselves too heavily in his weaknesses.
It boils down to the pivotal moment when your intuition tells you: This man is -- or isn't -- leadership material. In Martin's case, I think his supporters' moment came when he conquered Canada's massive deficit. It signaled a readiness for ultimate power.
Stephen Harper, on the other hand, flew under most Canadians' radar screens for a long time. He emerged into full national attention in his active bid for power in 2001, a period dominated by Reform-PC merger fractiousness, political amateurism, a strident focus on issues considered marginal by the Canadian mainstream, regional petulance, and Harper's personal diffidence. Frightened, they shrank from investment in him.
As a Quebecer, I go farther back for my defining moments with both Martin and Harper. It was in the 1995 referendum campaign that I saw their true colours. Jean Chretien had decided to maintain a low federal profile during the campaign, so it was left to pundits, academics and policy wonks to champion the federalist cause. Harper made the rounds of TV and radio shows, debating in French and English, rebutting specious and emotional separatist claims. As in the recent election campaign, he was calm, consistent, focused and principled at a time when heated, irrational rhetoric predominated.
Two weeks before deadline, with the wind in the separatists' sails, Martin blew into Quebec on a palpable wave of Liberal fear, warning that a "million" jobs would be lost in Quebec with a separatist victory. This was an incredible gaffe -- especially coming from a finance minister -- since there are only three million employed people in Quebec, and the contempt that greeted his panicky blunder helped the separatist cause.
It was at that moment, even though I had no idea the two would one day square off against each for leadership of Canada, that I became psychologically invested in Harper as a good man in a crisis, and disinvested from Martin as a man who loses control when things get rough. So I was disturbed, but not surprised when Martin became PM, and the pattern repeated itself.
Welcome back, Dr. Jekyll; all Canadians wish you a happy elder statesmanship, and congratulations, Mr. Harper, on a well-earned victory.© National Post 2006