Obama’s lesson lost on Ottawa

By Dan Tisch, President, Argyle Communications

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, we are told, is a clever strategist and a man of formidable intelligence. His supporters say he has changed and grown since taking office.

And yet, despite buying himself time by proroguing Parliament, his hold on power remains tenuous. Canada seems doomed to political instability at a time when we can least afford it.

The opposition parties seeking to topple the government are partially to blame; surely an economic crisis is the worst time to play political games.

However, there would have been no opportunity for their opportunism had the Prime Minister not misread the public mood on the biggest questions of our time.

When climate change became an existential concern for all of humanity, Canada took baby steps. When Canadians expected aggressive economic stimulus, the government hesitated.

Most devastating of all is the hardening of the Prime Minister’s image as a fierce partisan at a time when people want the precise opposite. In October, this hyper-partisanship cost him a majority government. If he continues along this path, it may cost him his job.

Much has been written about Barack Obama’s success in mobilizing millions of new voters and raising astonishing sums en route to a comfortable victory. He did so by articulating not a liberal (let alone leftist) solution to America’s ailments, but rather a vision in tune with the times: post-ideological and post-partisan.

CNN’s coverage of the presidential debates featured real-time meters of viewer opinion: at most flashes of partisanship, the candidates’ approval ratings went down. When they appealed to higher purposes or national unity, their ratings went up.

In his best moments, John McCain understood this. But with a campaign led by political generals still fighting the last war, the character assassins and ideological sharpshooters inadvertently fired on themselves. Sadly, Harper’s strategists seem to be cut from the same cloth.

Canadians are in a mood similar to our American neighbours: In an atmosphere of petty partisanship, we stayed away from the polls in record numbers and elected a minority Parliament that reflected both our apathy and our ambivalence.

We have seen politicians put partisanship aside before, usually at times of crisis. Winston Churchill’s multi-partisan war cabinet is perhaps the most famous example of the 20th century.
Today, however, the public’s desire to move beyond partisanship and ideology seems deeper than ever. Attachment to political parties is at a historic low, and engagement in social networks and movements is at a historic high.

The operating principles of social media – including authenticity, intimacy and agility – are inconsistent with blind partisanship, rigid ideology and Ottawa’s obsessive control of its ministers, mandarins, messages and media.

Our political culture punishes the few independent thinkers in our parties, far more so than in the U.S. or the U.K. The parties themselves still wield great power, but are largely irrelevant as venues for debate. What hope is there for ordinary partisans when even members of the cabinet have little influence in the government?
In this bleak environment, there remains hope that a new leader or political movement will arise or adapt to the post-partisan age. It is unlikely and perhaps unreasonable to expect an Obama-like figure to emerge in Canada anytime soon.

There is, however, a golden opportunity for Canada’s political classes to learn a lesson from his ascent – one that is both fundamental and yet paradoxical: moving beyond partisanship may be the very best boost of your partisan cause.

Daniel Tisch, APR
President | Argyle Communications

Originally published in the Toronto Star, December 6, 2008