Thursday, October 09, 2008

Too clever by 31%

Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won enactment of a bill moving Canada to a fixed term for Parliament, unless the Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence. This ostensibly limited the Prime Minister's ability to call an election just to grab a favorable moment on the political calendar.

Then he called an election for this fall, explaining that the restriction didn't apply to minority governments, which is what he has. (Explanation for Americans: Harper's party has a plurality but not a majority of seats in the House. This means that all of his proposals require at least the acquiescence if not the active support of at least one opposition party in order to become law.) He was widely thought to have timed this both to grab a moment of personal popularity and to come before the U.S. election, lest pro-Obama, pro-left, pro-"change" sentiment spread north of the border and doom him in two years' time. At the beginning of the abbreviated campaign, he seemed likely to finally get his wish and be re-elected with a parliamentary majority.

Now: Not so much. As Matt Yglesias has been discussing, an economic crisis has a funny tendency to sweep all the bums (of whatever political complexion) out of office, and perhaps to entrench a prejudice in favor of the other party just because it's there when things return to normal. Yglesias quotes Larry Bartels:
Considering America’s Depression-era politics in comparative perspective reinforces the impression that there may have been a good deal less real policy content to “throwing the bums out” than meets the eye. In the U.S., voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning funny-money party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and longer-lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased dominated politics for a decade or more thereafter.

On one hand, it's of course not Harper's fault that the financial systems of the world are in a tailspin-- and indeed Canada has yet to be hit hard by the results (notwithstanding a very rapid decline in the value of the loonie as currency traders indulge the perverse 'flight to safety' that means rushing into the US dollar even when it's the US that's leading the way off the cliff). On the other hand, it certainly is his fault that he's standing for re-election right now. If he'd waited until the election due date prescribed in his own legislation, he wouldn't be fighting to save even his minority government against the headwinds of [what we can only hope will turn out to be] a Schumpeterian "gale of creative destruction." Now, with less than a week before the election, he's at 31% in the polls and falling, with the Liberals at 27% and rising. So much for cleverly gaming the system...