When Stephen Harper sits down with his caucus this week, you can bet there'll be some in his flock beginning to wonder: Why can't this guy ever move us forward? We've been stuck at the same level of support for years. That feeling will be intensified when they see a poll this morning that puts the Liberals in a virtual tie with them. The PM's gaffe on the census could be taking a toll.
But Mr. Harper always has a ready answer for the naysayers, and one poll won't serve to undercut its validity. His answer is to tell them to look at what he's done to the opposition Liberals. In four and a half years, he has bloodied them so badly that he ranks as one of the great Grit slayers of history.
In this time frame, the Liberals have barely averaged 30 points in the polls. For most of the past two years, they've been running in the 20s. Since polling began, there's no period when the party has had that ugly a stretch. A record low it may well be. There were times when they had fewer seats, both after John Diefenbaker's sweep in 1958 and Brian Mulroney's massive win in 1984. But their polling average both before and subsequent to those defeats was considerably higher than in the past few years.
Mr. Harper's primary political mission in life, as anyone who knows him well will testify, has been to tear down the historically dominant party. His energies as PM have been devoted excessively to that purpose. It explains his passion for the politics of destruction - the attack ads, the smear campaigns, the attempt to strip parties of public funding, his turning of his Conservatives into what has been called a garrison party - a political/military machine.
His mission thus far has succeeded - and it's the major reason why Mr. Harper has succeeded. But while his emasculation of the opposition has proceeded apace, he hasn't advanced the standing of his own party. And his government has posted one of the lowest sets of support numbers of any government, Liberal or Conservative. In Harperland, everybody bottoms out, democracy included.
The Liberal stretch of anguish has seen them with three different leaders - Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff - over the past five years. Usually, three leaders would last the party several decades. Wilfrid Laurier and Mackenzie King alone led the Liberals for more than half a century. Pierre Trudeau was leader for 16 years, Jean Chrétien for 13, Lester Pearson for 10.
Of course it hasn't just been Mr. Harper who's been responsible for the Liberals' fall. They've had the sponsorship scandal, leaders without the wherewithal and so on. But much credit must go to the Prime Minister for being able to capitalize on their woes. He built a better organization, a better fundraising machine, a better campaign team. He outperformed them in the House of Commons, humiliating them by turning votes into confidence tests he knew they'd back down on.
But while collapsing the ground the Liberals walk on, he misses so many opportunities to till his own soil. Every time it starts to look like Mr. Harper can pull away, he flounders. In 2008, he was making big gains in Quebec and stood to win a majority when he threw it away with his ill-advised culture cuts and his description of gala-goers as a bunch of snoots. Later, again when he was doing well, came his budget update calling for the dismantling of public subsidies for parties. That almost brought down his government. Then he slammed shut the doors of Parliament on account of being hounded by the Afghan detainee controversy. His support dropped like a stone. This summer, cruising along nicely after the Queen's visit, he overreached again, taking himself down with the bone-headed census gambit.
Notable has been the Liberals' failure to take advantage of these openings. Now, with Michael Ignatieff showing signs of life on his grand national bus tour, they have another opportunity. But if the past four years is any indication, the great Grit slayer will find a way to bloody them again.