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US Vote: Trouble for Harper

With Bush a lame duck, PM's plans look passé.

By Murray Dobbin 13 Nov 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Vancouver-based journalist Murray Dobbin writes the State of the Nation column for The Tyee. Find his previous columns here.

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Warmer days: July 2006

For millions of Americans and Canadians, it was a huge sense of relief to see the most corrupt, amoral and incompetent Congress, possibly in American history, go down to defeat. Those days, we can hope, are over, as the political agenda is now in the hands of a Democratic Congress.

For a few weeks, at least, we can enjoy that relief and not dwell on the fact that things may not get a whole lot better. Given the general state of American duh-mocracy (poisoned by money, gerrymandered seats, defective voting machines and dirty tricks), we have to keep our expectations in check. A lot of the new Democrats look a lot like Republicans. We can focus on the fact that for the first time, a woman -- and one with smarts and heart -- will be the Speaker of the House, and that for the first time, both a socialist, Bernie Saunders, and a Muslim were elected. These are not small things. And Americans -- despite being shamelessly lied to by the Republicans and abandoned by their media -- came through in the end. They said enough is enough. Bless them.

Lessons for Harper

Canadians are apparently not going to give Stephen Harper six years before they say enough. A poll released by Environics for the CBC on the day after the U.S. election showed the Harper Conservatives and the Liberals virtually tied (33 per cent versus 32 per cent), with the NDP up to 19 per cent and the Greens, notwithstanding their shiny new leader, at five per cent -- barely more than their showing in the last election.

Bush's humiliation will make things more difficult for Stephen Harper. For his core supporters, Harper's apparently "good" relationship with Bush was a positive. It gave him the aura of a winner -- a player on the world stage. But Bush and his party will now be totally preoccupied with how to salvage something in the 2008 election. To them, Canada and Mr. Harper will be even more irrelevant than they are now. Harper has received nothing from Bush for all his sycophantic pandering. If you can get less than nothing -- and in Canada-U.S. relations you can -- then this is what Harper can expect.

Harper will have to deal with a lame-duck president and one who might even have to compromise with the evil U.S. liberals to devise anything resembling a saving strategy. In other words, Harper's soulmate will be found straying from the path of the true believer and Harper will look like the anachronism he is. He can't deal with the Democrats because they believe (or say they do) in all the things Harper hates. For the months leading up to a possible spring election, the America Harper loves will be in change mode.

Americans said no to ideology

Harper's fatal weakness is his inability to detach himself from his hardline, neo-con ideology. Preston Manning knew that Canadians wouldn't buy an ideological package, which is why he dressed it up in a populism he didn't believe in. Harper is constitutionally incapable of such a compromise, which is why he parted ways with Manning. The war he supports will be increasingly tarnished and Bush will be trying desperately to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, Harper could well be totally alone in his counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan -- at odds with Europeans and jilted by the U.S.

Government is back in the U.S., after six years of rule by those who were, like Harper, contemptuous of government. The Democrats will be pushing for an increase in the minimum wage, progressive changes to their prescription drug plan, less draconian immigration laws, improvements to their disastrous health care system and a more multilateral approach to the world. And the inheritance tax will stay in place. If it were any other country, it wouldn't matter. But Canadians are preoccupied with what happens in the Empire next door and what they see will make Harper and his politics look out of synch with the world.

Polls released immediately following the U.S. elections show Canadians increasingly preoccupied with the very issues that hurt Harper's government.

Medicare continues to be the most important issue, as it was leading up to the 2006 election. But the war in Afghanistan and the environment are now close behind. Medicare was identified as the most important issue facing the country by 16 per cent (compared with 22 per cent at election time), but the environment was picked by 13 per cent (compared to four per cent during the election), while Afghanistan was chosen by 10 per cent (it was at zero in the spring). This spells political disaster for Harper.

Fewer guns, more butter

The rationale for turning Canada's peacekeeping armed forces into a sheriff's deputy for America's permanent war is now in trouble, too.

There will be no invasion of Iran, which was clearly on the Bushites' agenda last week. The policy of pre-emptive war is, if not dead and buried, certainly on life support. It was this American policy -- the spreading of U.S.-style democracy at the point of a gun -- that was driving Canadian Armed Forces chief General Hillier's transformation of the military and the outrageous increases in military spending. With no one to invade, the billions of dollars for war-fighting machinery to give Canadian forces "interoperability" with the U.S. will now look increasingly like an unconscionable waste of money.

While global warming and the environment are not as high on the Democrats' agenda, they are a lot higher than they were under the Republicans. Mandatory emissions standards for the auto industry are a highly likely initiative as are federal subsidies for alternate fuels. Even corporate America is lining up behind taking action on global warming. Harper's Dirty Oil Act (a.k.a. the Clean Air Act) has already been widely ridiculed. It will look even more farcical in contrast to any new measures in the U.S. -- the country Harper had used to justify his own intransigence.

Deeper integration?

While media pundits focus on Americans' discontent over the Iraq war, a less well-known factor was the economy and in particular so-called "free trade." Election exit polls done by CNN and the New York Times showed that Americans' concerns about the economy and job security out-paced Iraq war concerns. The U.S. group Public Citizen, the leading NGO fighting these corporate rights agreements, has claimed major success in its direct interventions in the election. "Incumbents who had voted for the U.S. trade status quo of NAFTA, WTO and Fast Track were replaced by those rejecting these failed policies...with at least six Senate and 27 House seats being won by proponents of fair trade."

It remains to be seen if these elected representatives actually deliver on their fair trade promises and even if they do, it does not necessarily mean the deep integration agenda will be derailed. But Democrats are generally less enamoured with trade liberalization, and with this core of fair traders in place, the Security and Prosperity Partnership signed by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in 2005 could come under increasing scrutiny.

Just months ago, Bush and his henchmen seemed almost invulnerable. Their domestic PSYOP campaign -- constant bullying, abusing power and lying with impunity, ridiculing, slandering and threatening anyone who disagreed with them -- lasted for five years and seemed to have worked.

But the nightmare on Main Street is over. Americans will now feel free to debate the issues without fear of being branded traitors. Even the media will have to adjust to the new reality. That can only be good for Canada. But for Stephen Harper, who has increasingly modelled himself after President Bush, it is decidedly bad news.

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