THE RECURRENT political phenomenon that he who seems to win loses and vice- versa appears to have little applicability in the recent Canadian and U.S. elections. Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan have won among the most unambiguous victories in their countries' histories, and for their adversaries, defeat has few mitigations.
No one can fail to be impressed by Mr. Mulroney's virtuosity. Despite his studied imprecision, occasionally verging on the platitudinous, there is something almost artistic and rather reassuring in his sure and agile grasp of popular tastes, aspirations and fears.
No Canadian federal leader since Mackenzie King has had so deft a political intuition, and none in the instant media era except Pierre Trudeau at his best has had such communicative talents. And like other great Quebec political leaders of recent times, (Duplessis, Lesage, Johnson, Drapeau, Trudeau, Levesque), Mr. Mulroney has a well- developed and rather conservative notion of his own authority.
He may be relied upon to know when to be enigmatic, when forthright; when generous and when severe; when to try to dominate events, as Mr. Trudeau often did, and when to yield to events, as Rene Levesque is now doing, with as much decorousness as circumstances allow.
It is a cliche that Mr. Mulroney and his Government face stern tests and that all honeymoons end, sometimes acrimoniously, but the spectacle of government renewal is impressive. In a more general sense, we can congratulate ourselves on the efficacy of our system and the quality of our political leadership.
Despite Mr. Trudeau's economic misjudgments and intermittent international posturing, no serious person could dispute that he was a talented and effective leader who successfully managed the greatest challenge of his long tenure: the protection of the integrity of the federal state and the promotion of the federal option in Quebec.
He has been replaced by a promising successor with a resounding mandate, and almost as suddenly and unexpectedly emergent as was Mr. Trudeau a political generation ago. The fecundity of our prime ministerial selection process, the continuous quality of our central political leadership and the resilience of our unique and ziggurat constitutional system have all been notably upheld. In the habitual Canadian manner, we have perhaps given ourselves insufficient credit for a political system that compares favorably with virtually any other.
It would be unjust to ignore the leader of the Opposition. John Turner has evoked some of our least creditable national characteristics. He is a man of unquestionable capability, qualification and dedication. He is motivated by an unwavering sense of public duty and a selfless attachment to the best interests of the Liberal Party, which he seeks to reposition solidly in the centre and somewhat to the right of where Mr. Trudeau's lassitude permitted it to drift. For his efforts, Mr. Turner has been subject to an outrageous sequence of ridicule, condescension and premature oblivion.
The Liberals, in choosing him as leader in July, repudiated six members of their own government and selected a man they did not particularly like to lead them where, ideologically, they did not especially want to be led, because he was thought to be their best bet for continued incumbency.
His proverbial rustiness and his life-long respect for most functioning institutions and the people who operate them led him to accept some extraordinary advice and commit some egregious tactical errors. When his cabinet, with the notable exception of Jean Chretien, called for an immediate election, he concurred, with misgivings, almost washing his hands of the consequences of his actions.
His campaign collapsed in a free-fall arrested only by the intercession of election day. All through days without respite and nights without sleep, Mr. Turner never lost his civility, his dignity, or his courage. Rarely in our national experience has a political leader deserved so much respect but received so little.
Once this most conscientious man, who had never been optimistic about the prospects of re- election, saw his campaign begin to disintegrate, he focused on his principal objective of reconstructing the Liberal Party. In these circumstances, he was not necessarily inconsolable at having the electorate perform the first half of that task for him. Calling the election and conducting it as he did indicates he was not convinced the government with which he had once parted really deserved to be re-elected. He astutely re-emphasized the presence of Keith Davey, Martin Goldfarb, Jerry Grafstein and other intimates of the former regime to associate the old guard with the impending defeat.
By handing the campaign back to the Trudeau-era barons and by his doughty victory in Vancouver Quadra (which had the added benefit of visibly flabbergasting the media commentators), Mr. Turner arguably transformed the debacle into a greater rejection of Trudeauism without Trudeau than of himself.
What has been so swiftly lost could, ultimately, be regained. Mr. Turner could prove to be a Canadian Hugh Gaitskill, or even an Adlai Stevenson; he could conceivably be elected prime minister one day. I do not believe that so worthy a man will be just a symbol of the disappointments of office, a trivia question, or even a permanent victim of the churlishness of his predecessor.
The federal New Democratic Party is enriched by the high value of many of its principal figures, including its amiable and durable leader, Ed Broadbent. However, unless it can find a Quebec leader of the stature of the late Robert Cliche, it is not clear how any incantatory fingering of its old rosary of diligent progress, anti-Americanism and confiscatory tax reform will raise the party above its usual 15 to 20 per cent of the total vote.
To have any other chance of displacing the Liberals, the NDP would have to move toward the centre in a way that would be massively out of character and scarcely credible.
Mr. Mulroney presumably would like to replicate federally the fine and convenient division of opposition strength that has for so long obtained in Ontario to the benefit of the provincial Conservatives. My suspicion is that he will have to settle for a mere and somewhat diminished majority of the loaf; Mr. Turner for an increased but secondary portion; and Mr. Broadbent for not greatly more than his precedented allotment. In such circumstances, all three could claim a type of victory.