Canada’s national election yesterday went pretty much as forecasted: the Conservatives won a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, and will get to form a minority government under Stephen Harper. But it’s reasonably clear Canadians were casting votes to expel the current scandal-plagued Liberal government of Paul Martin rather than to give the Tories any real mandate to move the country to the Right. Minority governments in Canada don’t tend to last very long, and moreover, even those Tory governments who have won strong majorities in recent decades have typically gone belly-up after short holds on power. Aside from public ambivalence about the Tories, Harper will have to deal with a House of Commons where the balance of power is held by the left-labor New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, which is well to the left of center on most domestic and foreign policy issues. Despite making gains and punishing its ancient Liberal enemies, the BQ actually had a disappointing election, falling far short of the 50 percent vote in Quebec it had publicly set as its goal. And the NDP, which slightly boosted its share of the total vote from 15.7 percent to 17 percent, still wound up with only 29 seats in the House, as compared with 124 for the Tories, 103 for the Liberals, and 51 for the Bloc. So while it’s easy to identify the loser in yesterday’s elections, the ultimate winner is anybody’s guess. Martin quickly resigned as Liberal leader, and aside from Harper’s behavior as a P.M. without a majority or a mandate, the Grits‘ ability to regroup under new and uncertain leadership is the key political variable Up North. The most jarring difference between contemporary Canadian andU.S. politics is the restrained tone of the former, even in a campaign considered “bitter” by Canadian standards. Martin’s much-derided campaign for survival depended heavily on negative ads warning Canadians of the Tory boogeyman and its Republican friends in Washington (motivated in part by a largely unsuccessful drive to get NDP supporters to engage in “strategic voting” for the Grits in closely competed contests). It did not go over well.I got a personal taste of the low-key nature of Canadian politics yesterday afternoon, when I picked up a Toronto AM radio station while driving up I-95 from Richmond. NDP Leader Jack Layton was being interviewed; he sounded sort of like a decaffeinated Dick Gephardt–bland, wonky and very civil, particularly for a guy whose election-day objective was to shore up the “base” of the country’s most firmly ideological party.The aspect of yesterday’s vote that might well have parallel implications here in the U.S. is obvious enough: the connection voters made between Liberal ethics scandals and that party’s entrenched status and smug sense of entitlement to power. And that’s why Republicans probably shouldn’t get much satisfaction from a temporary and minority government led by their “friends” in Ottawa. North and south of the border, voters can and will provide corrupt and bumbling incumbenets with an “accountability moment,” even if they harbor misgivings about the opposition. Word up, Karl.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.