Justin Trudeau has stolen Stephen Harper's thunder. Mr. Harper may have a hard time stealing it back.
Actually, that isn't quite accurate. It isn't Mr. Harper's thunder that Mr. Trudeau has made off with. It's Patrick Muttart's.
In 2005, the Conservative Party was struggling to craft an election platform that would win votes away from Paul Martin's governing Liberals, who were well ahead in the polls.
Mr. Harper turned to Mr. Muttart for help. The young marketing guru distilled the complicated Tory brew of promises and commitments into five short, simple pledges: A Conservative government would cut the GST, introduce a child benefit for parents, get tough on crime, end government corruption and reduce patient wait times.
Mr. Harper hammered those key points day after day after day during the campaign, as Mr. Martin flailed around promising this, committing to that – even, in desperation, proposing constitutional reform.
The Conservatives, as we all know, prevailed.
Today, the Conservative tax regime has become so complicated that only your accountant understands it. In contrast, Mr. Trudeau promised a tax cut on Monday, on income between $44,700 and $89,400 a year. There is also an enhanced child benefit for households earning less than $150,000 a year.
The Conservatives, responding, flailed. Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre complained that the Liberals were reversing the increased contribution limit to the tax-free savings account, and if you are earning less than $60,000 a year and you are contributing – stop! Who could understand such gobbledygook? The government has introduced so many boutique tax cuts and tax credits and enhanced benefits and increased limits that the mind reels in trying to comprehend it all.
Liberal Deputy Leader Ralph Goodale, in contrast, described the improved child benefit Tuesday as "clean, simple, fair, tax free, right across the board." Mr. Muttart couldn't have put it better.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver could have lowered the GST again in the last budget, or even, say, offered a simple tax cut for earned income between $44,700 and $89,400. Instead there was income-splitting and TFSA changes and other arcane measures that few could understand or use without the help of H & R Block.
The Tories must have felt there was no need for simplicity. Everyone knows that they are the party of tax cuts and the Liberals are the party of tax-and-spend.
But the Liberals aren't spending, at least not yet. And Mr. Trudeau just whipped out a tax cut of his own to show us how big it is.
There is another counter-attack that the government could use: They could accuse the Liberals of waging class warfare, by increasing taxes on anyone earning more than $200,000 a year. Is it right to combat inequality by punishing success? Now that's a clean, simple debate.
But the old trope that Conservatives cut taxes and Liberals raise them isn't available any more. And the Grits are way ahead of the Tories on messaging, right now.
Stephen Harper fired Patrick Muttart during the 2011 election campaign over a minor imbroglio. That might have been a mistake.