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Prime Minister Stephen Harper on stage in Calgary May 2, 2011 after Canadians went to the polls in the federal election. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper on stage in Calgary May 2, 2011 after Canadians went to the polls in the federal election. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Wente

Here's why Stephen Harper really won Add to ...

Thanks to the central Canadian punditocracy, I now know why the Conservatives won an overwhelming election victory, and why the Liberals were pulverized. It was those nasty attack ads on TV.

So powerful were they that they persuaded millions of gullible voters to rise up against Michael Ignatieff and vote for someone else. Mr. Ignatieff himself blames them for his demise. Fellow Liberals think their leader was just too darn high-minded to strike back. "This is a blood sport," griped Jim Karygiannis, one of the last Liberal MPs standing. "There is no Mr. Nice in this business."

Liberal-minded opinion-mongers have been twisting themselves into pretzels to explain Stephen Harper's completely unexpected whopping victory. They're obsessed with the attack ads. Besides, they say, the Conservatives just got lucky. They reaped a windfall from the collapse of the Bloc Québécois and unexpected vote splits. Another reason is that Mr. Harper successfully appealed to "voter fatigue," "fear" and an uninformed electorate that's sadly oblivious to the destruction of democracy in Ottawa.

Anyway, they argue, it really wasn't such a victory after all. Mr. Harper, they say, failed to broaden his base (even though he conquered Fortress Toronto, where he'd always been shut out), and won only 40 per cent of the popular vote (just like Jean Chrétien and Bill Davis). One commentator compared his win to George W. Bush's "stolen" election of 2000.

If you want to understand why Mr. Harper loathes the mainstream media, look no further. But if you want to understand why he won, you'll have to look elsewhere. One problem is that the media demonize the very qualities that have made him a success. They hate him for his micro-managing, control-freak ways. But those same qualities have been crucial to his success. Without them, he'd never have survived five years in the bear pit of minority government.

In fact, the Conservatives won because they did the sorts of things the Liberals used to do. They built broad coalitions among disparate groups. Take the so-called ethnic vote. When the Liberals courted new Canadians, it was smart. When the Conservatives do it, it's sleazy. During the campaign, the CBC assembled countless panels of ethnic people to express their disgust at this condescending and divisive tactic. Amazingly, however, ethnic voters seemed glad to have important cabinet ministers show up in their ridings. They liked the focus on stability and a strong economy. Besides, the Liberals hadn't been around for years.

The Conservatives' years of efforts paid off spectacularly. To get results like that, you need a long-term strategy, passion, and someone willing to drink 15,000 cups of tea. The Liberals no longer have any of those things.

The Conservatives profited from vote splits. But they were also able to get out the vote where it mattered. They were focused and had ground troops who worked hard. For this, they're being accused of running a soulless and technocratic campaign. (When Liberals ran things this way, they were called "professional.")

As for those attack ads, it was Jack Layton, not Stephen Harper, who dealt the crucial blow when he brought up Mr. Ignatieff's miserable attendance record in Parliament during the leaders debates. "If you are going to apply for a promotion, you at least ought to show up for the job," he cracked. It stuck. Iggy never recovered.

Plenty of Harper critics think that Monday was a sad day for democracy. Personally, I think it was a great day for Canada. The Bloc, which squatted in Ottawa like a toad for 20 years, is gone. Mr. Harper has forged a historic new alliance between the West and Ontario, and he didn't need Quebec to win. Quebeckers' mass infatuation with the NDP may not last longer than snow in April, but their ability to hold federal governments to ransom may be gone for good.

For the next four years, Canadians will enjoy a blissful reprieve from non-stop political theatrics and dysfunctional minorities. They will have a clear choice of competing political philosophies. Critics warn that our politics will become polarized between left and right. But if Mr. Harper aims to turn the Conservatives into the Natural Governing Party, he'll have to govern as a moderate. That's bad news for armies of political experts, CBC panelists, Margaret Atwood and the Toronto Star. I almost feel sorry for them.

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