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May 20, 2005
Is Harper Finished?

In the aftermath of the failed Tory bid to unseat the Liberals and Paul Martin, the pundits will start analyzing the failure in light of the seemingly unbeatable revelations that have come out from the Gomery Inquiry. As party leader, Stephen Harper bears the ultimate responsibility for the strategy of this no-confidence effort and its execution, as the G&M's Brian Laghi reminds readers this morning:

The man who prides himself on his skill as a political tactician lost the biggest gamble of his political career last night. And, at least according to some, it didn't need to be that way.

After his defeat on a vote designed to force a spring election, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper finds himself today with a chunk of his political capital spent, a temperamental image with the Canadian public, and some members of his party sniping at him for what they believe was the frittering away of the massive advantage given to him by the sponsorship scandal. ...

Tories and other observers call the loss of former leadership foe Belinda Stronach to the Liberals the ultimate mistake. But Mr. Harper was also blamed for taking the heat off the Liberals by bringing controversy on himself. And, ultimately, he miscalculated that independent MP Chuck Cadman, an old Reformer like him, would hold fast to the views of his constituents when voting on whether to keep the government alive.

Without a doubt, Harper failed to take his case to the public, perhaps overestimating the impact of the Gomery testimony on the electorate, which seemed somewhat apathetic after an initial blush of outrage. He may have been hurt by trying to stoke those embers of outrage by overindulging in it publicly, hoping to lead a popular groundswell of disgust that would block Martin from allying with any other factions in Parliament. That backfired, as Laghi notes, as the Canadian voters (and the Liberals, of course) made Harper the issue instead of the massive corruption that Liberals used to attain and maintain power. He might have been better served by underplaying the outrage and sticking with a more somber and reluctant tone of performing an honorable but unpleasant duty of restoring dignity to Canadian rule.

Laghi's other criticisms of Harper's personal touch seem consistent with what I've read about his approach, although I'm in no position to know. What is apparent is that the only MP to cross the aisle was Belinda Stronach despite the many temptations and outright bribes offered by Martin and the Liberals, and more critically, no one abstained from the confidence vote. That seems to argue in Harper's favor, and in Belinda's case, one can understand why Harper was disinclined to personally intervene. First, her initial entry into politics last year was an attempt to keep him from becoming party leader, a rather presumptious effort from a political novice. Second, Harper probably felt that since she and deputy leader Peter MacKay had an ongoing intimate personal relationship, he didn't need to "jolly her along" too much, or that that task belonged to MacKay.

Laghi goes after the right man for the wrong reasons, for the most part. Harper made some odd decisions in this fight, and all played against him. Telling people that this vote was an all-or-nothing one-shot deal was his biggest mistake. In light of the corruption already exposed in Ottawa, Harper should have instead made clear that he will not stop until the Liberals were kicked out. He made the decision to drop his challenge to the earlier motions which should have qualified as no-confidence votes for no return whatsoever, a decision which legitimized yesterday's vote. Harper also failed to come to terms with Canadian ambivalence about his own political image; since he was in effect running for PM, he needed to make his case more publicly for that position. A slew of polls resulted in some contradictory numbers but showed a trend swinging back to the Liberals, driven mostly by a distrust of his leadership, and that needed immediate addressing.

Lastly, though, Harper may have been undone by his own basic honesty. During this entire episode, Harper made clear what he wanted to do and was aboveboard in his efforts to topple the Liberals. Harper clearly underestimated Martin and overestimated the man's ethics. Harper appeared unprepared for the garage sale that Martin kicked off, buying the NDP with a budget package and Stronach with a second-tier ministerial position. Anyone who paid attention to the Gomery Inquiry should have known better, but even I was pretty amazed at how baldly Martin and his cohorts sold out Canada just to squeeze past the no-confidence vote.

Harper may or may not survive this lost gamble. The real losers from a historical standpoint will be those who literally stood to keep in power a party that has so corrupted Canadian politics that it's impossible now to know whether their power has ever been legitimate.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers! CQ readers have a terrific debate about the collapse of the Tory challenge going on in the comments of this post.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 20, 2005 7:09 AM

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