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Kicking Ass in Post-Partisan Politics

11 Nov

A friend of mine used to be a major partisan of a major political party.

Come election time, there were few lawn signs bigger than his. He would tirelessly canvas for his chosen candidate and take it pretty hard if that candidate did not triumph. The ebbs and flows of his party’s fortunes would influence his own frame of mind.

He would socialize among fellow members of his party, enthusiastically devote large chunks of free time to party activities, and view most public issues through a partisan lens.

Although I never asked him this question, I’m reasonably certain if someone had told him to state five adjectives that best described himself, one of those adjectives would match the capitalized name of his  party.

As a journalist, I zealously follow partisan politics, and have covered it for many years. But I’ve never been a member of – or loyal to – any political party. Although I find party politics fascinating, and admire the passion and commitment of many of its practitioners, I’ve never quite been able to understand what it’s like from the inside. Or what it’s like to want to be on the inside.

From my comfortable perch as an outside observer, I can see a parallel between the fervor of party members and that of … say… sports fans. A potent brew of dedication, single-minded enthusiasm, hope and faith seems to drive both groups of people. Is the Toronto Maple Leaf fan whose perennial belief that his team is finally going to win the Cup any different in temperament, loyalty and optimistic outlook than the NDP partisan who believes Jack Layton will become the next Prime Minister?

Just as dedicated Leaf fans will have trouble appreciating the talent and superior appeal of the Montreal Canadiens, so too will partisans have a tough time conceding that any other party may have a better approach than their own on any given issue.

That element of partisanship is the double-edged sword of political life. It helps parties to mobilize, focus and compete for power. Unapologetically partisan Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella titled his guide to doing all of the above “Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics” because he argued that doing so is a necessary precursor to implementing the vision that brings anyone into politics in the first place.

On the other hand, the hyper-partisanship of political parties is probably one of the root causes of voter cynicism, apathy and low election turnout in the population at large.

Recently, my once-partisan friend started a new job that requires him to be unaffiliated with any political party. During last month’s federal election campaign, there was no lawn sign in front of his house. I asked him if he found it hard to stay out of the fray, and was surprised to hear him say he didn’t.

His job keeps him engaged with political issues and the political process, but he said that being outside partisan politics gave him a perspective he didn’t have before. Now, when he hears party members react to any given issue in a fiercely partisan way, he smiles and thinks “I used to be like that”.

Is my friend onto something? Certainly in the recent American presidential election, one of the big buzzwords was “post-partisanship”. The victory of president-elect Barack Obama was not only historic because he is set to become the first African-American president in history, but also because of the way he achieved his triumph.

He mobilized voters and contributors like no one else had ever before, through grassroots efforts and over the Internet. Most notably, he appealed to younger voters with his inspiring talk of hope and change, and his unwavering message of unity across party lines and demographic groups.

“There is no red state, there is no blue state, there is only one United States of America,” Obama thundered at campaign rally after rally. The message resonated with post-partisan young voters. Early indications are that voter turnout among youth was higher than in any other American election except that of 1972, the first election after the voting age was lowered to 18.

Does Obama’s win mean we’re in a new political era? Hard to say. Obama himself muddied the waters when he appointed as his chief of staff congressman Rahm Emanuel, who has a reputation – say his opponents – as one of the most hyper-partisan Democrats in Washington.

An acknowledgement, maybe, that even in a post-partisan world, there are still political benefits to kicking ass.

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The Curse of the Democratic President (on Canadian Conservatives)

4 Nov

All around the United States… all around the world… millions of people await the results of tonight’s historic American election. The anxiety and anticipation levels are palpably apparent even here in Ottawa, where people are talking about little else.

As in every other national capital, officials in Ottawa have been gauging the implications of the anticipated election results in the U.S. and preparing their government for future relations with the new American administration.

The anxiety level may be especially high in the office of Stephen Harper, the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Canada. For this country, no other international relationship comes close to approaching in importance the one Canada has with its southern neighbor.

If polls are accurate, the PMO will have to adjust to the new international priorities of a Barack Obama administration, which are certain to be markedly different from those of George W. Bush on such important files as Afghanistan, the environment, trade, and border security.

Harper may also have to do some damage control with Obama over the so-called NAFTA-gate incident from earlier this year, when a Canadian diplomatic leak made Obama look as if he was being hypocritical on re-opening NAFTA and may have contributed to his loss to Hillary Clinton in the Ohio Democratic primary.

Finally, Harper – a keen student of Canadian political history – may be anxious about an interesting phenomenon that has affected a number of his Conservative predecessors. Call it the Curse of the Democratic President.

Conservative Prime Ministers don’t come to power all too often in Canada, but on three separate occasions, dating back to the Great Depression, the inauguration of a Democratic President in the U.S. has served as a harbinger of a Conservative defeat, leading to an extended spell on the opposition benches.

The most recent example came in 1993, when Bill Clinton was sworn in as U.S. President at the tail end of Brian Mulroney’s reign as PM, in the midst of an economic downturn. Within ten months of Clinton’s inauguration, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals had taken power north of the border, and wound up keeping it until Harper became PM in 2006.

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President in January, 1961, his prime ministerial counterpart John Diefenbaker was leading the largest majority government in Canadian history up until that point. A year and a half later, Diefenbaker – who never got along with Kennedy all too well – squeaked back into power with a minority. But in April 1963, the Liberals began a string of election victories that would keep them in office for the next 16 years.

The curse began during the prime ministership of R.B. Bennett, who had the misfortune of governing during the Great Depression. He had been in office for 2.5 years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office in March, 1933. Bennett tried to follow Roosevelt’s lead by introducing a Canadian New Deal, but it couldn’t save his political career. The Liberals took power a year and a half after Roosevelt became President, and stayed in office for more than 21 years, well into the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A Democratic President taking office during an international economic downturn? It’s enough to keep a Canadian Conservative Prime Minister up at night…