Icy electoral gales, Part II

November 26th, 2006
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Alberta’s icy November has provided an apt metaphor for the increasingly doddering leadership campaign of Jim Dinning, whose effort more and more resembles the foundering of the gale-battered Edmund Fitzgerald to Ted Morton’s smoothly steaming and increasingly formidable USS Abraham Lincoln.

Those inclined to shadenfreude could exult in Dinning’s visage at last night’s party gathering in Calgary’s Roundup Centre. (The leadership race being decided on the basis of one-member, one-vote, it can’t be termed a convention.) Ashen-faced and thin-lipped, Dinning appeared ready to snap.

The numbers – For those who missed it, Dinning received 29,470 or 30.2 percent of the 97,690 valid ballots counted. Morton drew 25,614 or 26.2 percent. Ed Stelmach gained 14,967 or 15.3 percent. These three will proceed to the second ballot, which will be voted next Saturday.

As one very senior political figure commented to a friend of ours, spending a reported $3 million to gain fewer than 30,000 votes counts as simply pathetic. Especially when Dinning reportedly resorted to carting in ethnic octogenarians by the busload, many apparently only dimly aware of what they were doing.

It’s not as if Morton had to round-up and corral herds of senile ranchers, transporting them and their livestock in rented cattle trucks to the polling station. “Th’ name’s Wilbur, and this here’s ma cows Bessy the Holstein and Margy the Simmental.” “Ballots for all three of you, then?”

More sorrow than spite – For myself, though, I feel a tinge of sorrow at Dinning’s self-immolation. As we snort at the seemingly classic errors of a cynical, too-slick but empty campaign, it’s easy to forget how ably Dinning performed as Alberta’s treasurer during the tough times of the early 90s.

With firm direction from Ralph Klein and his cabinet colleagues, he got rid of the huge deficit, started paying down the debt, cut taxes, brought integrity to Alberta’s financial reporting (making it the envy of Canada), and helped to drain the pestilential pit of failing, subsidized or government-owned enterprises.

This was a stellar performance, and Dinning deserves great credit, even 10 years on.

Don’t get me wrong: like the Doc I’m an unshakeable Morton supporters.

The limits of the post-modern technocracy – Dinning’s campaign displayed many of the traits of the post-modern Western world’s technocracy, both strengths and weaknesses. Including what I see as its Achilles’ Heel: the fixation with eliminating risk. In the corporate world this manifests itself as ripping the entrepreneurial heart out of companies in an ultimately vain drive to bring about uniform, predictable earnings while avoiding anything “bad”.

In Dinning’s political campaign, it amounted to steering around any controversial positions – or in some cases fleeing any position at all. The goal seemed to be alienating as few voters as possible, i.e., driving risk out of the campaign. But it missed the larger point that, in order to have voters you’re worried about losing, you first have to gain voters.

How do you do that? Name recognition and an aura of “cool” can only take you so far. At some point, you have to have ideas, and take positions. This was Morton’s campaign through and through. Some say Morton took too many positions and articulated too many ideas. That’s another item to argue over.

In Dinning’s case, while his campaign might well have succeeded on the first score – turning off as few voters as possible (except for that bad press over the strong-arm tactics) – Dinning failed to provide one good reason why anybody should vote for him. He obsessed over losing voters before he’d figured out how to gain voters.

Bush I, Bob Dole, Paul Martin – I think this campaign places Dinning in a long and sad lineage of remarkably able seconds-in-command. George Bush the First was an almost universally praised vice president but a disappointing president. Bob Dole was one of Washington’s most effective Senators, but a calamity as presidential candidate. And Paul Martin – well, we know all about Mr. Dithers.

Dinning, I think, fits this mould. Unlike Martin and Bush, he hasn’t yet had a chance to fail in office, for he may lose at the campaign stage. That’s closer to (but not quite the same as) Dole, who lost the presidential campaign after winning the Republican nomination. The difference here is that, should he win Alberta’s version of the “primaries”, Dinning would lurch straight into the premier’s office. After last night, it may not happen.

One last funny bit – Was there a more eccentric sight than the scene in which the hapless, bloated Dave Hancock officially declared his “support” for Ed “The Steel-Rimmed Cipher” Stelmach?

Shouldn’t someone have reminded this odd couple that, in a one-member one-vote race, you don’t just seamlessly hand over all your “delegates”? Because, like, there are none. There are only voters. And do you hold your own voters in such contempt that you expect them to move herd-like over to your rival? Hancock’s inner-city metrosexuals (and perhaps not just metros) are now going to show equal enthusiasm for a virtual caricature of the rural reeve who’s risen way beyond his own utter lack of charisma?

If anything, as Dr. J. mentioned, the losers throw the race wide open, because their voters are anyone’s to grab.

It’s going to be an exciting week.

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