Wednesday, January 24, 2007

As the Ships Sink

On November 7, the day of the American election, E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post: "The Republican Party no longer has a coherent governing philosophy. Republicans who care about advancing a consistent set of ideals are already at each others throats and are likely to stay there." This past Saturday, Andrew Coyne, writing in the National Post, concluded that, "After a year of Conservative rule it is now clear, conservatism isn't just dying -- it is dead. And it's the Conservatives who killed it." From both left and right, from both north and south of the border, a consensus is forming. The Great Conservative Reawakening of the past generation is about to be buried; and the authors of its demise have been so called conservatives themselves.

I have argued in this space that the Great Conservative Reawakening was never a conservative phenomenon: that its main proponents -- Hayeck, Strauss, Freidman, Thatcher, Reagan and all of their disciples --were really libertarians, not conservatives. This was no great insight on my part -- the late Dalton Camp recognized the trend early for what it was; and until his dying day he railed against what he called the "neo liberal" and rampant individualism which corroded the foundations of social stability. For Camp, an evolving but stable society was the bedrock of true conservatism. He believed that the last Canadian conservatives were Progressive Conservatives. The son of a Baptist Minister, Camp understood that the new conservatism of the Reform Party -- which eventually hijacked the party to which he had devoted his life -- was more akin to a religion, wedded to dogma and convinced of its own moral rectitude.

How does one account for the shipwreck that is now taking place? Well, all governing coalitions get stale; and, as this happens, its members tend to choose incompetent leaders. By 1980 Americans, while acknowledging that his heart was in the right place, came to the conclusion that Jimmy Carter's head wasn't. They saw him -- quite simply -- as a man who was not up to the job. As a result, the old liberal consensus built by Franklin Roosevelt gave way to a man who had been inspired by Roosevelt but whose policies were, in many ways, diametrically opposed to what Roosevelt stood for.

In Canada, Paul Martin met the same fate. Widely viewed as an excellent Minister of Finance, as Prime Minister he was nicknamed "Mr. Dithers," an appellation which stuck. Canadians, too, concluded that he wasn't up to the job.

Which brings us to George W. Bush and Stephen Harper -- two would be allies. As was clear from last night's State of the Union Speech, the American public has figured out that George W. Bush is not up to the job. The two critical policies of Bush's presidency -- the War in Iraq and his response to Hurricane Katrina -- have been unmitigated disasters. And, when faced with the consequences of those policies, Bush's response has been to forge ahead, insisting that no change in course is the mark of strong leadership.

Harper, on the other hand, has proved that he can turn on a dime. Whether the issue is luring the recently elected David Emerson into his cabinet, reversing his campaign pledge on income trusts, declaring that "the Quebecois are a nation within Canada," or hurriedly borrowing the very environmental policies he disparaged in the last election, Harper -- for all his apparent rigidity -- does not have his feet set in concrete.

For true believers, like Andrew Coyne, this amounts to "selling the conservative soul." For ordinary Canadians there is the distinct odour of Brian Mulroney's government. It is worth remembering that Canadians gave Mulroney the largest electoral majority in history. But when his party was finally tossed out the door, they retained two seats in the House of Commons. Mr. Harper was celebrating his party's first anniversary in power two days ago. But there was a skunk at the party.

The skunk is the public's suspicion that they've been had -- that they've been victims of a classic bait and switch. They bought the line that they were electing conservatives when, as Dalton Camp knew only too well, they were being sold a pig in a poke. The public --not quite as early as Camp -- but, nonetheless, like him -- have figured out that the so called conservative ships of state are sinking. And that's as it should be.

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