Monday, July 21, 2008

What Happens When Our Leaders Lack Vision?

I read an interesting article this morning by one of my favorite Globe and Mail columnists, Lawrence Martin. He is reflecting on the leadership style of Prime Minister Harper, and how the Conservative Party lacks any sense of national purpose, or vision. He suggests that this approach has not netted him any real gains in the polls, and that people want something more from their politicians. Personally, I have always felt that those we elect, despite our democracy, are less a reflection of our wishes and more a reaction to perceptions crassly manipulated by those who either aspire to or wish to retain power. I also believe that those who are elected have a special responsibility to try to cultivate the best in all of us; unfortunately, the venal reasons so many people run for office precludes that from happening very often.

In any event, I have reproduced Mr. Marin’s article below, and although I disagree with his conclusions about the purpose behind changes in personnel such as the chief of staff (after all, Guy Giorno, a much-reviled member of the group that brought Mike Harris to power in Ontario, is hardly an improvement over Ian Brody), it makes for some thought-provoking reading:

The politics of destruction has run its course

From Monday's Globe and Mail
July 21, 2008 at 8:14 AM EDT

The governing Conservatives have discovered something of late: Their modus operandi - politics as war - isn't working as it used to.

In the winter and spring, they had the Liberals running scared from the prospect of an election. But in the soft days of summer, much has changed. A veteran pollster was saying last week that, if an election were held today, the Tories would likely find themselves on the opposition benches.

Their game plan, which served them reasonably well, was simple. Leave the ideas to eggheads, visions to dreamers. Use a superior field commander and bigger tanks to crush the opposition.

The politics of destruction was a slice of Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist, come North. Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan describes the Rovian techniques in his book What Happened. In the Bush administration, "deliberation and compromise, elements central to governing, all but disappeared." Governing was turned into a permanent campaign. The "mentality of political manipulation" operated around the clock.

The war mentality of governance wasn't strictly a Republican thing in the United States, just as it hasn't been a strictly Conservative happening in Canada. Democrats there, Liberals here, lay the groundwork with their own lowering of the bar. On each side of the border, conservative governments came in promising a new way but found comfort in the old.

War politics worked here to the point where, with Stephen Harper weaving intricate plots, St├ęphane Dion almost faced mutiny. On the battlefield, the PM had cruise missiles, the Opposition Leader popguns.

But, in a signal that all has not been proceeding well, the PM has brought in a new chief of staff, a new communications director, other new faces. It's a wise move, a scaling down of the war mentality that could bring about a truce with the media, civil servants and alienated segments of the public. If the bunker mentality isn't being abandoned, it's at least being modified.

Changes are necessary for obvious reasons. The Conservatives have been sliding in the polls. Their recent series of mini-scandals, some prompted by too much Karl Roving, has clouded their image of cleanliness and competence. They are seen as being too blue when the trend line is green, they are dropping in popularity in Quebec, the economy is suspect, and the war in Afghanistan, which they enthusiastically embraced, is going badly. To top it all, they have posted no vision of where they want to take the country.

Moreover, an opposition leader once on the point of crumbling hasn't crumbled. Mr. Dion's Green Shift plan has changed the political dynamic, elevating his image from wimp to risk-taker, staking his party to a strong vision, putting the PM on the defensive.

The Conservatives were relying heavily on Mr. Harper's big lead over Mr. Dion in personal leadership rankings. But that's less certain now. They were relying heavily on making big gains in Quebec. That's not at all certain. They were hoping to be able to boast of sound economic management. But that's hard to do if the economy is sliding.

The good news for them is that, while their support numbers have been slipping, Liberal numbers have not been going up. The Tories also maintain big tactical advantages in terms of money and organization. On the political spectrum, they have the right side to themselves, while the Liberals are crowded in with the Greens and the NDP.

But momentum, which was once on the Conservatives' side, has been drifting away. Their penchant for destructive politics has hurt them ethically. But more than that, because they have placed so much emphasis on battlefield tactics, they have little in the policy vault with which to move forward. In the last parliamentary session, they had some good initiatives such as immigration reform, the residential schools apology and a few consumer-friendly measures. But there were no big-ticket items to showcase in a campaign.

The war mentality of governance can work in the short term. But, in the long term, something more is needed. With the tides shifting, the Conservatives need a bold new program, something to show the public they can do more than crack heads

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