Watching the debate Tuesday night (June 15) , I could see why the pundits want to put Canadian voters on the psychiatric couch. Just a few months ago, this election was a slam dunk for Paul Martin's Liberals. And it would be still if people voted for the person they felt would make the best prime minister, or for the party that best reflected their radical-middle values on key policy issues. But you have to ask the question - why, if people want to punish the party in power for corruption and arrogance and still stay true to their beliefs, aren't they switching en masse to the NDP's Jack Layton, in the same way that voters sickened by scandals did in a series of elections over the past 15 years in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and BC?
If people voted according to their policy values, all the polls show, Harper's Conservatives would remain the same regional rump party that Alberta-based Reform was during the 1990s.
What, the national psychiatrist needs to explain, does the contradiction between popular values and ballot-box behaviour tell us? Why do voters swing both ways and switch to someone opposed to their ideals when there's a viable candidate who supports them?
It's easy enough to come up with a list of advantages the Conservatives had over the NDP going into the campaign. Right-wingers are no longer splitting and wasting their votes on two parties. And they kept a solid base during the worst of times. When Stockwell Day, a man who thought dinosaurs and humans were created at the same time just because he'd seen them together in his own organization, could get 25 per cent of the popular vote, there's a big base keen to back a hard-right alternative.
The Conservatives also enjoy major media backing, with the Sun chain, the National Post, Global TV and CTV giving them and their views ongoing positive play.
So Harper benefited from a running start that Layton never had. As recently as 18 months ago, the party that chose Layton as its leader was on the endangered species list and had few ideas that could clearly be differentiated from whining.
Layton didn't have to merge two parties like Harper. He had to resuscitate a party given up for dead and put it back in the running. As his innovative approach to policy, his non-stop campaigning and his confidence in the TV debate shows, he has consistently punched way over his weight.
There's an ironic twist to Harper's rise in popularity, which hasn't at all been on his own terms. Say what you want about his hidden agenda in relation to gay and women's rights; the fact is that he's had to run on the same big spender/big promises themes as mainstream Canadian parties and hide his belief in do-nothing government. Obscuring his biggest issue, the one that Harper didn't want religious or lifestyle issues to mess up, shows that he's a politician who can truly run and hide. His adoption of a kinder and gentler right-wing extremism than is practised in the U.S. is quite a victory for Canadian political culture.
It's also true that Harper can look prime ministerial when opportunity knocks on the national TV debates. Some things only his hairdresser knows for sure, but the grey hair added or allowed to show matches his switch from black-and-white presentations on hot-button issues and his mastery of a cool, calm and collected presentation of self. He comes off like a person comfortable in his own plastic.
Though Layton is handsome, he's disadvantaged when it comes to media appearances. TV lights and formats seem to make him look glib and inauthentic, and don't show his capacity to be a great listener.
People who've met Layton in the flesh feel totally different. They see a person bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm, with a lust for positive action - all stuff that's too hot for the cool medium of television.
His second disadvantage is that he comes from 20 years in municipal politics. His forte is working with people he disagrees with, seizing on a sliver of agreement to start a collaboration on a promising project. If TV can make pro wrestlers look like fighters who really want to hurt each other instead of the comics they are, it's no surprise a rambunctious Layton comes off looking like an attack dog.
But the reality is that he will be great in a minority and will milk every bit of goodness out of whomever he's working with. Unfortunately, this just doesn't show in the ultra-partisan world of federal political competition or the polarizing world of TV.
The third disadvantage is where the psychiatrist is really needed. Layton comes from a party that's more comfortable as conscience than government. He speaks for social movements that are used to being in opposition, not grabbing the brass ring when it comes around. Perhaps that's why he hasn't worked on the weak spot of what pollster Marc Zwelling calls the NDP's "container," the invisible holder of its policies.
To fend off worries that the NDP can't be trusted in power, for instance, Layton needs to field a high-powered candidate who could be touted as finance minister or critic, or nominate a person to manage, as distinct from leading a combat on, Canadian dealings with the U.S.
Voters, after all, just like kids with parents, know that promises will be broken and errors will be made. They're looking for signs of trustworthy management - that's what a party's container is about. But the NDP just keeps on trotting out more policies and rarely works on its container issues.
Leaders can't build containers. Only parties and movements can. The miraculous fact - I still have to pinch myself to believe it's true - is that the NDP actually represents a rough social consensus among a solid plurality of Canadians. But too many people who hold such views still don't have the confidence to present themselves as a government. That lack of chutzpah may cost us dearly if the Conservative surge continues.