Ten Reasons Dalton Will Win Again
It’s been just a few days since the Ontario Liberal Party – whose caucus, full disclosure, I give comms advice – lost in three by-elections, in Toronto, Whitby and Ottawa. Great candidates in all three ridings, great organization, great effort. But the Liberals still lost. Lost.
So why aren’t John Tory and Howie Hampton running around trumpeting the results of the March 30 by-elections? Why aren’t they telling everyone that the end is near for Dalton McGuinty and his party?
I have ten theories about that. I call them the Top Ten Reasons Why McGuinty’s A Winner, and Why He’s Going to Win.
1. People still think Dalton McGuinty is a good man: I’ve heard about the polling. I’ve seen the polling. I’ve even done some of the polling. And the bottom line is this: Dalton McGuinty’s approval ratings are not just where Liberals wanted them to be, mid-term: they’re better. People weren’t wild about the health care premium but – even back when that tough decision was made – they understood why he had to do it. With a $7 billion deficit left by Harris and Eves, it was shut down hospitals, and fire nurses – or find more money to pay for health care. Voters understood that. McGuinty is seen as a grown-up boy scout by most voters: earnest, hard-working and – while not perfect, and who is, etc. – someone who will always stop to give your car a push when you’re stuck in the snow. John Tory, meanwhile, a lot of voters expect to drive on by – in a chauffeured limo. He’s a nice guy, he’ll smile and wave at you. But he’ll still drive by.
2. People still like McGuinty’s Grits: A poll conducted by SES Research just a few days ago – one of the firms that came closest to predicting the outcome in the most recent federal election – found that nearly ten per cent of Ontarians favour Dalton McGuinty’s party over John Tory’s Tories. At 41 per cent support, in fact, McGuinty is more than double the 20 per cent of voters who like the NDP. Among women, Dalton’s gap over John is 15 points. And among 18 to 30 year olds his party has double the support of the Tories. What does that mean? Well, it means that the endless braying and screeching about broken promises and Fiberals and other clever Toronto Sun headlines are just that – a lot of dumb Toronto Sun headlines. With Liberal voters, who read fine newspapers like Murray’s or mine, McGuinty’s party is generally doing what it has to do. There is no ideologically driven, mean-spirited class war, as there was when the Conservatives were in power. Voters remember what it was like in those bad old days. They don’t want to go back.
3. McGuinty Undersells then Overperforms: When I was much, much, younger, and when I had a lot more hair, I was a litigation lawyer in Ottawa. I thought the Meech Lake Accord stunk, so I started helping out Jean Chretien in his leadership bid. When he offered me a job in his office, I had a lot of friends and clients and family sit me and say: “Don’t throw your life away, Warren. Don’t do it. That man will never, ever be Prime Minister.” Well…I guess he did okay, didn’t he? He went on to win three back-to-back-to-back majorities, and every election he contested in his home riding of Saint-Maurice. In politics, as in sports, winning usually is a pretty good measure of success. Part of Chretien’s winning formula, and McGuinty’s, is being like Canadians themselves – modest, ordinary, never bragging. Undersell what you’re doing, then overperform. Voters remember that. It’s why Stephen Harper won the federal election, by the way – he emphasized his ordinariness. He was a hockey Dad with a bit of a paunch, and he wasn’t rich. There are a few million of us just like that in this country. That’s why McGuinty will win the next election. As with Harper, in a battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians, Tim Horton’s will always beat out room service at the Four Seasons. McGuinty’s Tim Horton’s. John Tory’s the Four Seasons.
4. Stephen Harper is Dalton McGuinty’s best friend: There aren’t many Tories who will say this out loud – but enough of them have told me, so I’ll tell you, without naming names. “Warren,” one of them said, who is very, very, very close to John Tory, “If Stephen Harper wins, John Tory is screwed. Tories in Ottawa, Liberals at Queen’s Park.” Some might call that electoral symmetry, or alternation, or balance. I call it plain old reality. With Harper in power – possibly for another six years – Dalton McGuinty has become the last Liberal standing in Canada. The chances of voters wanting to hand over virtually every level of government in Canada to one political party are somewhere between slim and none. Because, let’s face it, Jean Charest and Gord Campbell are good guys, but they’re not Liberals. And NDP governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan won’t exactly be seen as adequate balance to a Canada dominated by conservatives. So will Ontario voters want to keep McGuinty around, as balance? Hell, voters in every province are going to want to keep Dalton McGuinty around!
5. McGuinty’s doing the job he was hired to do: Dalton McGuinty was elected with a big, fat majority less than two years ago. He told everyone that the Conservatives had made a Hellacious mess out of government , and voters believed him – because they knew it was true. When Janet Ecker did her budget stunt out at Magna – an event that will rank as the stupidest, dumbest, goofiest political decision this province has seen Jesus was a little fella, by the way – she said three times that the budget was balanced. Well, that was what we in Calgary call a goddamned, stinking lie. But it amazed me, as the 2003 provincial election campaign unfolded, how many voters knew that already. What Liberals heard from voters, over and over, was not that they wanted the Conservatives humiliated. That was a given. What amazed me was how many of them were saying, in church basements and campaign offices, that Liberals wouldn’t find governing a walk through the proverbial park. They told the Grits it would be tough, and it has been. But, according to the polls, and according my gut, they’re still with the Premier. They know McGuinty is doing the job he was hired to do.
6. McGuinty’s record is good: Leaving aside the smaller class sizes, the smaller deficit, the more doctors and nurses. Forget about that stuff for a moment….You hear that? That’s the sound of social peace. No rioting at Queen’s Park. No people being shot to death for protesting in a provincial park. No welfare Moms being left to die alone in sweltering apartments. Jobs are up, unemployment is down, people feel good.
7. John Tory is Dalton’s other best friend: Let me say something a Liberal isn’t supposed to say. I know John Tory. I have worked with John Tory. I like John Tory. But John Tory still isn’t going to beat Dalton McGuinty. Why? Let me tell you a story. After John lost the mayoralty race – and he should’ve won, because he would have been a good mayor – I heard he was thinking about the Conservative leadership. When we finally got together, I told him I felt like a spouse who was being cheated on – I was last to officially find out. He asked me what I thought, and I told him the truth. McGuinty is going to beat you, John, not because you aren’t an urban, urbane man – you are. That’s what the Tories need. Your problem is they don’t know it. Under Harris and Eves, the Conservatives consciously and deliberately hacked the word “progressive” out of their name. They took an axe to it. Liberals didn’t do that. They did. So here’s my point, I said to John Tory, who I still like a lot. My point is this: you want to jump back in time to the time of Bill Davis. But everyone around you – in the caucus, in the party – want to jump back to the meanness of the Mike Harris era. Everyone in your party still thinks beating up on homeless people is good public policy.
8. Two terms is the rule: In North American politics, the rule of thumb is that you get two kicks at the can. George Bush Sr. didn’t, and neither did Jimmy Carter. Up here, it’s pretty hard to go straight from a big majority right into opposition. These two guys are the experts, not me, but I think that John Tory needs to do more than just run around calling McGuinty’s people “Fiberals.” He needs to present clear reasons why McGuinty deserves to be kicked out, and a clear reason why he deserves to win. So far, he hasn’t done either. And that’s why McGuinty is ten points ahead of him.
9. McGuinty’s the media’s worst nightmare: Reporters like covering conflict, not consensus. The journalistic pickings have been damn slim for reporters in the McGuinty years: jobs and economy up, scandals down. Media solution? Drive him out of office! The voters, as we will see, have a different agenda.
10. With McGuinty, what you see is what you get: He ain’t a millionaire, or a powerful former corporate executive, or even perfect. He never claimed to be. He’s a regular Joe Schmoe, and Ontario is full of regular Joe Schmoes. If you close your eyes, it’s not a stretch to picture him riding public transit, or lending you his lawn mower when yours breaks down, or having him over for a barbecue. With John Tory, as much as I like him, it’s kind of hard to picture him doing any of those things. Dalton McGuinty is going to be re-elected in Ontario because he most resembles the people who live and work here. And because, at the end of the day, they like him and the job he’s doing.
In politics, that counts.