Driving the rural roads of southwestern Ontario recently, where election signs a-plenty decorated the roadways, I found myself reminded of an imagined scenario I’d been pondering ever since Tom Mulcair began to emerge as a very credible candidate for prime minister: how would I, were I an NDP candidate, present my case at the door of Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary Canadian?
Out here in the middle of farmland Ontario, you can’t get any more Ordinary Canadian. Away from the aggression and the pandering of interest groups and the ebb and flow of movements that allow urbanites the latitude to think by collective, here you find the engine room of the country: the nuts and bolts and the exactness of practical knowledge under the expert care of conscientious people who provide the necessities to those cozy parlors where elite minds exchange platitudes while outthinking themselves and us.
Years spent in flighty arts circles and as a political pundit in a metropolitan setting, I know how to dance to that tune. (Urban left-wingers, while annoyingly Pharisaic, do know how to step in style.) But out here, where the spin doesn’t cut it and even the best spinmeister can’t cut a decent rug, the campaigner would be wise to consider Mulcair’s ascent to the top of the polls. He was a player early and he is solidly there now, more than halfway to the finish line in this race to trump incumbent Conservative Stephen Harper in the Oct. 19 federal election. And it is that he is resonating with rural and urban voters alike without a groundswell of left-wing sentiment to fill his sails that is the important observation.
Methinks it would be best to abandon the traditional pitch-and-hope approach of campaigns past, where hopefuls tried to will a conversion experience for the man in overalls on the other side of the doorframe he gripped while waiting for the evangelist to stop talking. The dynamic has changed considerably this time. It is no longer about fervency of belief in an ideology — for the sobering reason that winning is very possible. And even more sobering is the reality of just how the traditionally unelectable NDP could form the next Government of Canada, and how it could lose it all.
Mulcair has proven to be such an imposing presence on the campaign trail — favored consistently in the polls over the automaton Harper and the 12-step group leader Justin Trudeau (Liberal) — that he would most likely be a shoo-in were the electoral system the type where Canadians could get to vote directly for their prime minister. Instead, only a single riding (in Quebec) will be able to cast a vote for the leader voters across the country have demonstrated they prefer. Because the Parliamentary electoral system is structured this way, his fortunes rest entirely on the fortunes of lesser candidates bearing the banner of the once-fringe NDP party, in battles not of national scope but often defined, instead, by the favors and quarrels of local reality.
A tough row to hoe, that.
There is, nevertheless, hay to be made.
Harper’s ship has sprung leaks, perhaps due more to his inability to shake the dictator persona than his resumé from two terms managing the affairs of the country or even association with already-boiled Senate scandals. Even on the hustings, where the salesman in you needs to be at its slickest, Harper sounds like a broken record in continuing to repeat rehearsed lines in the face of arriving information that dramatically changes the narrative on issues for which his government is being held to account. (Baghdad Bob was at least animated.) Weary, weary people, sick of the constant reminder of how the Government of Canada came to be rebranded the Harper Government (consider the ™ implied) and alarmed by Western Reform colors showing through peeling paint, are fleeing in great haste.
Mulcair, who happens to be NDP, has stood tall in filling the vacuum left by the rush away from the vacuous gaze of the Harper-bot. Trudeau has turned out to be as disappointingly passive as the petals on a wilted daisy, in spite of a cheering press and occasional hints of passive-aggression. Mulcair seizes opportunity in every new turn of events (including the surprise announcement on Day 44 of the 78-day campaign that Finance Minister Joe Oliver had balanced the books after all). Trudeau regards the same revelations as opportunities for Harper to make a moral inventory and admit the exact nature of his wrongs to the proverbial group.
Judging by their poll responses and often-proactive thoughts on what should be campaign fodder, voters this time around appear to be looking neither to the left nor the right, but straight into the future where reside their expectations of what a well-managed Canada should look like.
Though untried, Mulcair has stepped up to present himself as just as credible a potential manager of the nation’s business as any other, only minus the jackboot of Reform, the indecisiveness of Trudeau’s sincerely naive wishfulness for the social collective, or the loony-left baggage his own party has in tow.
My task as an NDP candidate, then, would be to resist the urge to win an intellectual or philosophical argument at the door, and focus instead on not squandering the goodwill of national sentiment that has had reason to swing in my favor. The task is admittedly made more difficult, however, by the nature of the electoral process itself, which gives rise to voter decision at the riding and national levels being two very different things — with only one X to serve two reasonings.
Practical over philosophical, then. Let’s save for another day the philosophical niceties that might convince one my party is morally superior to the next. If not careful, I could derail Mulcair’s train by inserting left-wing evangelizing into the conversation at the door (always an urge), for this is not an election propelled by ideology, but by practicality. My pitch, then, must be simplified to convey this and only this: my leader is going to become the next prime minister, and a vote for me is a vote for the party that will be in a position to enact the changes or preserve the values you believe in.
It should not be a very difficult case to make on its own merits. Mulcair has already done the work in establishing a believable scenario in which he would become prime minister. Here’s the logic:
Should my party win, I stand a chance of being named to a cabinet post. The inner circle is always privy to governmental favor. Through my having found favor, you win. On the flip side of that coin, all that my rival candidates could offer you is advocacy from a standard-issue MP with one of the out-of-power parties. Wouldn’t you rather elect a representative who will have the means to bring government’s ear to our riding? Here? Where you and I both live? Hm?
I might not be able to convince you in a 15-minute conversation on your doorstep that I am a better candidate across the board than one of another political stripe you might admire for other (read: local) reasons. But I can help you connect the dots on how parliamentary politics works, and then point you to the polls and to the images on the nightly TV news that attest to the validity of my argument.
Pondering of the hypothetical candidacy aside (and back to the reality of a one-X, faceless voter), I would use my X toward Mulcair becoming prime minister in a heartbeat. What I can’t be counted on to do is thoughtlessly toss it out to a local candidate, of any stripe, who didn’t put in a satisfactory effort. That, above all other feedback, is what should resonate with NDP candidates in local ridings across Canada.
The candidate supposedly bearing Mulcair’s banner where I live has not yet had the wherewithal to put in an appearance, nor to put up an election sign anywhere in the riding.
The only real rival to the incumbent figured the best attribute he could think of to sell himself as my best choice to meet the needs of my neighborhood is that he is an economist. Huh? I can’t think of any boots-on-the-ground use the folks here would have for an economist. Especially one whose leader, come November, is more likely to be busy posing as a conduit to a higher power than a prime minister handing out cabinet posts.
That leaves the incumbent, whose integrity is worth acknowledging as he heads into a third term, even if his party’s brand has lost its sheen — and I can see the paint peeling, here and there. (Oh, look! There too.)
Sigh. Decisions, decisions.
Too bad the most important one was never mine to make.