What’s better, politically? Small or big?
Well, a few years back, Conservative MP Peter Van Loan called Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty “the small man of Confederation.”
Van Loan shouldn’t have made remarks about a political rival’s size, of course. At the time, Van Loan was big enough that he could have applied for his own time zone. But the then-Conservative House leader was upset that McGuinty had demanded Ontario get more House of Commons seats – along with B.C. and Alberta – due to population growth.
Van Loan was against that notion, then. (Now that pollsters are saying that the Conservatives may win another majority thanks to those new seats, he isn’t nearly as opposed to representative democracy.)
What rankled many Liberals, at the time, was Van Loan’s characterization of McGuinty as a “small man.” Calling a political opponent “small” suggests that they lack vision and courage. It’s kind of mean. (Although, when compared to the Rubenesque Van Loan, everyone looks small.)
But what if we live in an era wherein “small politics” is the order of the day? If you survey the political landscape, that certainly seems to be the case.
There was the President of the United States, for example, last week delivering his State of the Union speech, and it was all about small. The New York Times characterized it as “the diminished State of the Union,” and they were right. For 6,786 words, Barack Obama went to great lengths to remind everyone that he now lacks the ability to do big things.
So, he said, he would go around a gridlocked Congress, and think small. He plans to “take steps without legislation,” he said, to do fewer things. What they are, we know not. The Keystone pipeline, which is of critical importance to the Harper government (and which they have critically mishandled) was not mentioned once. Gun control (a year after the slaughter of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School) received two paltry sentences.
The reaction of the media? The Times approvingly decreed that “big, muscular” government was “a dead end.” The Washington Examiner and Post, respectively, called it “small bore” and “modest.” Neither seemed upset about that.
Up here, politicians have taken note. Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats have discarded Venti-sized policies, and are now purveyors of the picayune. Their latest preoccupation isn’t the Constitution or free trade: it’s ATM fees. The Conservatives, similarly, aren’t busying themselves with nation-building so much these days. Lately, they’ve seemed most energetic about the duration of cell phone contracts. The Liberals? They spent a Summer talking about cannabis, but not Syrian genocide or Quebec’s racist secular charter.
Small is big. The Globe’s Jeff Simpson pithily derides it as “small ball politics,” and he’s right. But it’s a strategy that has worked for Harper’s Conservatives for years, Simpson says, and he’s right about that, too.
Visionaries, I once remarked to no less than Dalton McGuinty – who, full disclosure, I proudly helped out – “start religions and wars”. They can often be the most dangerous people in a democracy.
But, as we look around our Lilliputian politics these days, where only political pygmies like Peter Van Loan now wield power, yearning for a bit of the vision thing is understandable.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a leader who thinks big, and does big things, once again?