"I want to know how many of you thought we were going to be able to get here," Kathleen Wynne said to reporters on Tuesday as she celebrated the passage of her budget and the end of the Ontario legislature's spring sitting.
It was a question the rookie Premier could have put to her fellow Liberals as well. Because it is easy to forget, now, just how demoralized they were only a few months ago. The only leader they had known since the mid-1990s had made an ugly, scandal-plagued exit. Long-time allies, most notably in the provincial teachers' unions, had turned on them. With polls showing them running third, they appeared headed for a reckoning in an inevitable spring election.
And yet here we are, with Liberal MPPs heading off for the summer break with at least a modest spring in their step. That election never happened, the old allies are showing signs of warming to them again, and most polls now show them either in the lead or tied for it.
The turnaround may or may not last. But the fact it has happened at all, let alone at the same time that the gas-plants scandal left behind by Dalton McGuinty has actually gotten worse, is cause enough for even Liberal opponents to privately concede that the party made the right choice in selecting a new leader.
Until a head-turning convention speech, Ms. Wynne gave little indication during the leadership campaign that she was capable of turning the ship around. She came off a bit too technocratic, blending into the background during debates and struggling to match left-of-centre policy ideals with the deficit-plagued province's fiscal imperatives.
From that convention onward, she has taken to the job in a way that has surprised even some of the people around her. Merely avoiding major gaffes, for someone new to the Premier's office and surrounded mostly by senior staff without previous experience there either, has been an accomplishment in and of itself. But she has gone well beyond that.
She made peace with the teachers' unions, which helped win favour with parents weary of protests disrupting their kids' education. She outmanoeuvred the third-party New Democrats on the budget, winning their support without looking like she had ceded control – and beating NDP Leader Andrea Horwath at her own game of seeming like the adult in the conversation. And in the process Ms. Wynne was able to lay claim to left-of-centre policies that, while not significant enough to have a major impact on the government's bottom line, helped demonstrate her social conscience.
Most impressively, on the strategic front, Ms. Wynne managed to strike just the right balance in distancing herself from her predecessor without offending Liberals still fond of him. Embracing new revenues for transportation that Mr. McGuinty steered clear of, pouring cold water on plans for a Toronto casino and jettisoning the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation chair who had aggressively championed it, she picked her spots to make clear that she's her own premier.
But get beyond the strategy and the tactics, and there is a simpler reason why Ms. Wynne has been able to at least temporarily revive her party's fortunes: People like her.
Mr. McGuinty's aloofness, on display once more Tuesday when he leaked word of his retirement as an MPP without showing up at Queen's Park, helped in this regard; merely by being more accessible and less scripted, Ms. Wynne seems fresh and new. Beyond that contrast, she has achieved a rare mix of seeming premier-like and disarmingly down to earth, conveying that she has a strong grasp of government's inner workings but isn't so far inside the bubble that she can't relate to ordinary people.
To the extent that her basic niceness has gotten her to this point, there is some cause for Liberal concern about what comes next. Before long, Ms. Wynne will need to offend some people – with her transit strategy, with a 2014 budget that will require more cost-cutting measures than this year's did, with unforeseen tough choices. And there is really no telling how well her brand will hold up through that.
For Liberals even to have cause to start worrying about that, though, is a sign of how much Ms. Wynne has already exceeded expectations simply by raising her government out of its death throes.