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margaret wente

How could such a smart guy be so stupid?

That's what everyone's asking about Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister's former right-hand man.

No doubt that's what Mr. Wright is asking himself right now as he pounds the pavement on those long, lonely predawn runs. Whatever possessed him to write a $90,000 cheque to a senator who was being audited for illegitimate expense claims? Did he actually think no one would find out? Did he consider the consequences if they did? Did he even check to see whether it was legal?

Stephen Harper must be wondering, too. He and his former chief of staff are two peas in a pod – disciplined, focused, laser sharp, and crisply in control. But now, a penny-ante scandal has blown up into a major crisis about abuse of power. And all because Nigel Wright tried to be a good guy.

Mr. Harper promised Canadians a different kind of government – modest, anti-elitist, respectful of the taxpayer's dime. Now it turns out that Conservatives can milk the system just like everybody else. And when they get caught, their buddies in high places will bail them out.

The Conservatives are looking like the kind of people they used to loathe. But that's what happens when outsiders become insiders. People start to feel entitled. They can't resist rewarding their friends. They get used to drinking $16 orange juice and feeling incredibly important. They get a little greedy, or a little venal. And when the orange juice hits the fan, their colleagues go easy on them because, hey, it's just good old Duff

How could a well-paid senator with a lucrative former career be so broke? (Just asking.) And why was Mr. Wright so eager to help him out? Was it merely pity, and the hope that a repayment would shut down the audit? Or was it something else? How could Mr. Wright not have informed his boss on such a sensitive political issue – especially a boss with a passion for micromanaging? But I don't think Mr. Harper knew. He would have seen the implications, and stopped it right away.

This story will not end now that Mr. Wright has thrown himself under the bus. Rules and laws may have been bent and broken. Other politicians will probably be found to have taken advantage of a system that seems designed to protect its own. Above all, a lot of people who really did believe in the Conservatives are saying: This isn't right.

What Mr. Wright should have done, back in February, was advise Mr. Harper to throw Old Duff to the wolves – along with anyone else who might have been abusing the public purse. He should have advised Mr. Harper to have every senator audited until their teeth rattled, and to hell with party loyalty.

Mr. Harper knows it's not the cancellation of the long-form census that enrages voters, or his so-called dictatorial style. Those things only matter to the pundits. It's the $16 glass of orange juice. It's the $90,000 get-out-of-trouble-free card. It's the puffed-up politician who claims to live somewhere he doesn't, or the ones who fly around on the people's business and charge a fortune for it. It's people overfeeding at the public trough, then assuming that all they have to do is pay back the money and everything will be okay.

But it's not okay. And everyone knows it.