Friday, September 26, 2008

Politics: Contrasting Strategies on the Right

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Globe and Mail columnist John Duffy has made the case that the first North American election is taking place in the United States and Canada. Duffy believes that that rural voters (represented by the Republicans and the Conservatives) are being pitted against urban voters (represented by the Democrats and the other parties in Canada). While challenges to that thesis could take several forms, perhaps the most interesting divide may be that between the tactics used by the Republican Party of John McCain and the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper.

In Canada, Stephen Harper has positioned his Conservative Party as the beacon of stability and competent economic stewardship. He has called the other parties "too risky for Canada" especially in rough economic times, and has tried to emphasize that risk. Indeed, polls indicate that Harper is viewed by Canadians as the best leader to handle the economy. The deeper the economic problems in the United States prove to be and larger their impact on Canada appears, the more Harper would seem to benefit.

In contrast, John McCain has been trying to establish himself as more anti-establishment than the candidate of the party that actually is out of power in the White House. Building on his long-standing reputation as a "maverick," McCain picked as his vice-presidential nominee someone else who could claim populist credentials in Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Since picking Palin, McCain has rarely talked about his advantage in experience over rival Barack Obama, instead emphasizing what his ticket would do to change the nation's capitol. He paints himself as a man of action, who takes on his own party and forces change in ways that benefit the country, even if that means doing things in an unconventional manner and hurting his own political prospects.

(As a side note, the etymology of the word "maverick" is somewhat amusing, traditionally meaning an unbranded ranch animal, named after a Texas rancher who refused to brand his cattle. This was essentially an unethical practice by Samuel Maverick, allowing him to claim ANY unbranded cattle whether it was actually his or not, subverting the branding system to his personal advantage. Does a politician really want to be associated with a word of that etymology?)

The "maverick," "country-first" strategy reached a new apex this week when McCain announced he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to lead the effort to pass economic bail-out legislation, and that furthermore he would not attend the scheduled Presidential debate scheduled for this evening. While McCain tried to make a case for demonstrating self-sacrificing leadership through this action, in many ways he made Obama look like the competent statesman who was taking a measured approach and understood that the personal contribution of either candidate to the legislation was likely to be minimal. Obama's statements that "presidents have to do more than one thing at a time" and that "injecting presidential politics into this process may not be helpful" sound like things that Stephen Harper might say. Far from calling the other candidate too risky, McCain is opening the door to appearing too risky himself.

A case could be made, in fact, that the personality expressed by McCain in his campaign does not most closely resemble Stephen Harper, but that of Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe. Interestingly, it is indeed the Bloc that may effectively compete for rural votes in Quebec if for no other reason than its nationalist stance. While generally regarded as a left-leaning party, the Bloc currently holds most of the rural seats from Quebec and may retain a number of them considering the current backlash against perceived Conservative insensitivity to Québécois culture.

The rise of the action démocratique Québec (ADQ) at the provincial level in Quebec, as well as the election of a New Democratic Party member of parliament in urban Montreal, may indicate that Duffy's rural-urban thesis is coming to that province. However, since there is still competition for rural voters in Quebec and the current divide in tactics between the Republicans and Conservatives exists, the first North American election still probably lies in the future.

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