Simultaneous campaigns - completely different political cultures

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The Gazette, Monday, September 8, 2008

For the next five weeks, with the overlay of the Canadian and U.S. elections, voters will have a daily opportunity to compare the similarities, and note the differences, of the political cultures in the two countries.

To begin with the obvious, as we have just seen, party conventions are very different events in the two cultures.

In Canada, nominating conventions are competitive, while in the U.S. they are coronations. As such, Canadian conventions usually go beyond one ballot, with notable exceptions such as the crowning of Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader in 1990 and Paul Martin as his successor in 2003. Delegated conventions can be very exciting, with surprise outcomes, as was the case when Stéphane Dion stormed from third to first place in the 2006 Liberal race. The best Canadian conventions of modern times were the Conservative leaderships of 1976 and 1983, four-ballot nail-biters that chose Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney.

By contrast, the last competitive U.S. conventions actually decided on the floor, were the selections of John F. Kennedy by the Democrats and Gerald Ford by the Republicans (over Ronald Reagan) in 1976. For the rest, with the exception of the odd floor skirmish over the platform, U.S. conventions have been scripted television pageants.

The Obama and McCain narratives are very different but each is extremely compelling in its way. And in an election that's shaping to be more about values than issues, the narrative will be extremely important.

The fundamental issue in the U.S. election is change, which is why McCain, in his acceptance speech last Thursday night, tried to wrest change from Obama. But as we saw with Hillary Clinton, given a choice between a real change candidate and one who could be, voters will generally choose the real thing.

McCain did make a convincing case for himself as a maverick and reformer, a change agent. It was the most impressive, and authentic, part of his speech. And in his pitch to moderates and swing voters, he elegantly stayed on the high road with Obama, which is more than can be said can be said of the Democratic candidate in his acceptance speech.

To the extent that issues receive prominent play in the U.S., election, there might be some interesting echo, and playback, in the Canadian campaign that began yesterday. There will also be some obvious contrasts.

On the economy, for example, it's advantage Obama, as McCain carries a Republican burden that includes high oil and gasoline prices and their inflationary impacts, the housing crisis, rising unemployment and a bear market on Wall St. About 80 per cent of Americans, in one poll after another, think their country is headed in the wrong direction.

The economy is clearly the top issue in the U.S., and in Canada's it's heading that way. Where the economy was ranked only third behind the environment and health care a year ago, it is moving into first place. While Canada technically avoided a recession in the second quarter of this year, and added 15,000 jobs in August after a shocking loss of 55,000 in July, the rising economic uncertainty is one of the reasons for Stephen Harper to go to the polls while the going's still good. About half of Canadians still think the country is moving in the right direction.

Other issues that are likely to resonate in Canada are health care, the environment, energy and Afghanistan. There are two very different debates on health care. The U.S., the richest nation in the world, is still having a debate about universal health care in a country where nearly 50 million people have no coverage at all. In Canada the debate isn't about whether the public health care system is broken, but largely about how to fix it.

On energy, both Obama and McCain have pledged to end America's dependence on foreign oil, by which they mean Mideast oil, not Canadian oil and gas, to which the U.S. has access it takes for granted. That's one reason for Obama to be very careful about suggesting re-opening the NAFTA, of which McCain is an unqualified supporter. Trade won't come up on the campaign trail, but it could in one of the the leaders' debates.

On the environment, everybody on both sides of the border wants to save the planet from global warming, but Dion is the only party leader in either country to propose a carbon tax to do it.

It certainly sets him apart from the others.

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