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In the popular version of Ontario's political history, there were the Good Old Days and the Bad Old Days. The Good Old Days were when Bill Davis was in charge. Bill was an affable, big-tent Red Tory who made us feel that things were more or less on the right track (or so we remember). If only those days would come back!

Then came Bob Rae and Mike Harris. Their ghosts haunt us still. They were dividers, not uniters.

Bob Rae and his band of loony-tunes radicals destroyed public finances and drove the province into a ditch with their reckless socialist schemes. (The fact that Mr. Rae spent half the time battling his own loonies is largely forgotten.)

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Mike Harris, the much-loathed Tory premier, slashed and burned and inflicted lasting damage on teachers and the poor (and also got blamed for a lot of the downloading inflicted on Ontario by the federal Liberal government).

For years, these two phantoms have been used to spook the voters. Vote the wrong way, and the Bad Old Days will come back.

But now, some funny things have happened. The people running hardest against Bob Rae aren't on the right. They're on the left. Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Toronto mayoralty front-runner Olivia Chow all want you to know that they are not Mr. Rae and never will be. (They are referring, of course, not to the current good Bob Rae, but to the ancient bad Bob Rae.)

They all know that fiscal prudence is the way to go. Debt is bad and raising taxes on the middle class is worse. More cheap daycare? Um, not right now, maybe not ever. The rhetoric of social justice has all but vanished from their vocabularies. They have few if any words to say about the poor. Instead, the oppressed class that most deserves the taxpayers' help is … small business!

"Personal taxes are quite high," Mr. Mulcair said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen this week. He solemnly promised not to raise them. He also promised to maintain tax reductions for the "small and medium-sized businesses" that create jobs.

Ms. Horwath has also discovered her inner chamber of commerce. She thinks small businesses that create jobs should get tax credits. "It's important – as we responsibly increase the minimum wage – to also make sure we're reducing small business tax to reduce the impact," she told the St. Catharines Standard. She also promised to slay the deficit by 2017.

Never mind whether this is possible, or whether these policies make economic sense. (They don't.) The point is that these sentiments are the price of admission to power today. No New Democrat can get elected without emphatically repudiating most of what the NDP stood for 20 years ago. That's how much times have changed.

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Or, to put it another way, that's how far the Overton window has shifted. (Hat tip to economist Stephen Gordon for introducing me to this useful concept.) The Overton window, named after its originator, Joseph Overton, describes the range of ideas the public is willing to accept at any given time. This window is usually quite narrow, and politicians must operate within it. If they don't, they tend to get defenestrated.

The Overton window is always shifting, which means that yesterday's unthinkable idea (gay marriage, for example) may eventually become today's policy. In adjusting its economic rhetoric sharply to the right, the NDP is simply tracking the change in public sentiment.

Tim Hudak, Ontario's Progressive Conservative Leader, doesn't need to invoke Mr. Rae's ghost. He's got the Ontario Liberals, which is even better. Their record of profligacy has spooked everyone and their fiscal credibility is shot. This time, Mr. Hudak is betting that even his full-throated imitation of Mr. Harris won't scare away voters. He's promising to lay off 100,000 public-sector workers. This, along with strict expenditure control and more corporate tax cuts, will magically create an economic boom.

As policy consultants Scott Clark and Peter DeVries churlishly point out, this scheme is a load of ripe manure. But that may not matter to voters. What they hear is "smaller government and less waste," a message that could be looking pretty good after all those years of the Liberals.

Personally, I wish Mr. Davis would come back. Now those were the Good Old Days! But I don't think that even he could fix the mess we're in. We're spending too much and growing much too slowly. And that is really scary.

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