The Prime Minister who does not get his ass kicked

I was at a University of Toronto panel discussion on 9/11 the day Dalton Camp died. Evan Solomon, the moderator, spoke of his legacy. His friends will remember him for many things, but the sieve of history will likely note next to his name the aphorism: elections are not won, but lost.

It's a short, powerful message. Implicit, for me anyway, is that modern democracies are not relevant to the people who own them; the candidate seeking to govern us, and who comes to our door to discuss why and how, is an annoyance lumped in with electricity contract salespeople. Political leaders, who in Canada usually rise through the narrow career of legislator to become nearly de-facto heads of state, find themselves in power most often through the voters' rejection of their opponent, not through any superlative qualities of their own. Voters, at least in Canada, rarely select the superstar; they reject the leader who becomes a looser.

But it's my view that, particularly for generations that followed those who witnessed the mass adoption of television in the 1950's, politicians are judged as much on how good they are at politics as how good they are, or would be, at governing. In other words, voters form opinions first based on who would best do what they want, and second -- focusing on character -- on who is best equipped to not get his or her ass kicked.

Jean Chretien openly talks about how his anti-separatism Clarity legislation was proposed in the winter, because -- to paraphrase -- it is very hard to protest in Montreal in the winter. In a sense, he was doing the ass-kicking to people trying to destroy his country. We loved it.

Paul Martin, on the other hand, approached governing with a sense of fairness -- he himself called the inquiry into the Chretien era sponsorship spending and the inquiry ended his career. He was fair, but I think voters don't care. As the head of all of us we didn't want somebody who would kneel down before others. He got his ass kicked as the head of our country and the country rejected him.

Brian Mulroney swept to power by sweeping out almost two decades of Liberal rule. He conquered Canada and Canada loved him. In my view, his undoing was less related to the legislative successes of the GST and NAFTA than to the series of Ministerial resignations (fairness) and the defeat of Meech Lake (getting his ass kicked at the finish line). When Brian Mulroney could no longer hold his arms high is the winner of bout after bout, his career was done. Charlottetown was the knockout blow.

Despite the passion voters had for Barack Obama, he was largely elected on the rejection of the Bush legacy, piqued in the credit crisis. To succeed, he needs to continue to kick ass -- and he did not on health care. Had he lost that legislative skirmish his stature as a head of state would have been severely impaired; it's worth noting that none of this has anything to do with health care policy, which is both hardened socialism and a wet napkin, depending on who you ask.

In present times, Stephen Harper has demonstrated time and again that he is a better pugilist than his opponents. He scores punch after punch against Paul Martin, Stephane Dion and -- surprisingly -- Michael Ignatieff. Yes, Canadians care about policy. But they are smart enough to care about subtext as well, and Harper's subtext is that he -- the man we most see as the current head of not just our legislature but the 144 year-old thing called Canada  -- is a very good boxer.

Many Canadians despise him. But in my view they secretly prefer the guy who kicks ass to the guy whose ass is kicked.