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For an ex-president of the United States, Bill Clinton seems to be popping up an awful lot in our country these days, including here in British Columbia. Nor is he sparing smaller centres, such as Kelowna. While it's easy to be cynical toward the aging-rock-star whiff about his tour -- which, at $150,000 (U.S.) a speech, reportedly yields a not-too-shabby annual income of $7.5-million -- there's always value in hearing the wisdom and experience of a man twice democratically elected to the most powerful office in the world.

So popular is Mr. Clinton today that it's easy to forget he will go down in history as only the second U.S. president to have been impeached. Aside from the fact that he was not in the end convicted and removed from office, what's helped people forget the dismal end of his presidency is the deep unpopularity of his Republican successor.

It's Prime Minister Stephen Harper's misfortune that George W. Bush's unpopularity -- call it toxicity, if you will -- colours Canadians' perception of issues such as the softwood lumber agreement, not to speak of our mission in Afghanistan. You would have thought, therefore, that Mr. Harper -- frequently portrayed as a poodle of the U.S. President -- would have made more of Mr. Clinton's plea that Canada not leave Afghanistan before the job is done.

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Mr. Clinton is a member of the Democratic Party, and his views may have come as a surprise to Canadians who conflate that war with the disastrous situation in Iraq, despite the fact that we are operating in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate and as part of a NATO coalition. Nor, in contrast to the polemic over the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has there been any serious dispute that Osama bin Laden was given safe harbour in Afghanistan by the Taliban, where he planned the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr. Clinton's position on Canadian involvement in Afghanistan stands in stark contrast to that of Jack Layton's New Democratic Party, which voted at its last convention to withdraw Canadian troops immediately. As the former U.S. president explained to his Canadian audiences, this would have the effect of returning the country to Taliban rule, not an appealing prospect for anyone interested in human rights. It's hard to imagine any successful politician in the U.S. taking Mr. Layton's position; notably, even left-wing Democrats, including the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, have argued for greater U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Indeed, even on Iraq, the Democratic Party is not pressing for immediate withdrawal.

In part, the difference between Canadian New Democrats and U.S. Democrats is attributable to the responsibilities that come with being a superpower and having strategic interests in every region of the world. The other part, of course, is that the Democratic Party hopes to win the 2008 presidential election. Mr. Layton's NDP, on the other hand, has never been in office in Canada and there is no sign on the horizon that it ever will be. So he's free to take pretty much any position that pops into his mind without undergoing serious media scrutiny, including a position on Afghanistan that encourages Taliban attacks on our soldiers as the surest way to turn public opinion in Canada against the mission and precipitate a quick pullout.

At the provincial level, of course, the NDP is a vastly different party, especially in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan where it regularly forms government, as was the case once in Ontario, to the great surprise of the man who became premier, Bob Rae. These days, Mr. Rae is running for the federal Liberal leadership, and to listen to him explain why he left the NDP is as good a summary as you'll find of the differences between Canada's New Democrats and U.S. Democrats.

Interestingly, Mr. Rae has the potential to reshuffle the deck of Canadian politics should he win the Liberal leadership. According to a Decima poll released on the weekend, fully two of every five respondents who voted NDP in the last election say they would consider voting Liberal with him as leader. If that scenario were to eventuate, Canada would be within shooting distance of restoring a two-party system outside Quebec, which is the way the parliamentary system of government was designed to work, and the way it works here in British Columbia.

nspector@globeandmail.com

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