Is Dumont Quebec’s own George W. Bush? (Montreal Gazette op-ed)

Is Dumont Quebec’s own George W. Bush?; There are striking similarities in the appeal of the two leaders
The Gazette (Montreal)
April 10, 2007

Is Mario Dumont Quebec’s answer to George W. Bush?

Maybe so. Mario Dumont’s rapid rise from a party leader largely without a party to head of the official opposition in the National Assembly followed largely the same playbook as the plain-speaking, anti-establishment and family-oriented conservative campaign that propelled George W. Bush to the White House in 2000.

Dumont’s spectacularly successful third-party campaign demonstrates Bush’s most important lesson of outsider politics: offer popular generalities, like reducing the government bureaucracies and supporting a pro-family agenda, but provide as few policy specifics as possible. As part of the downgrading of specifics, congenial outsider candidates like Bush and Dumont sought to sell themselves largely as appealing personalities, an everyman or everywoman in tune with the suburban and rural voters who represent the majority of the electorate.

In other words, “compassionate conservatism,” north-of-the-border style, has come to Quebec.

With those two words, Bush sought in 2000 to distinguish himself from politics as usual – presenting himself as a friendly alternative to the trench warfare waged for years between Bill Clinton and the congressional Republicans who impeached him. With his ADQ campaign, Dumont likewise offered a third way designed to liberate Quebecers from their own long-running grudge match between the Liberals and the PQ.

Experienced politicians always have one potentially fatal flaw when facing a newcomer: They have records they must try to defend. Being in office means making some enemies, and governments do not always keep all the promises made by candidates. So outsiders promising to do things differently can always channel citizen frustration with the status quo into their upstart campaigns. By the time their rivals recognize the threat, it might be too late.

Presenting oneself as an outsider candidate doesn’t mean one really is an outsider. Dumont has been in politics for more than a dozen years. He was once the head of Quebec’s young Liberals and he studied politics under both Robert Bourassa and the PQ, with whom he worked on the 1995 sovereignty vote. And Bush, for all the brush-clearing on his Texas ranch, was the Harvard- and Yale-educated son of a former president.

Reality is often trumped by appearance, especially when the news media are not diligently reporting on issues. Without issue specifics, people will see the candidate as they wish, filling in the blanks in policy pronouncements with their own hopes. For people worried about the consequences of immigration, Dumont’s veiled doubts about reasonable accommodation made many voters think he would turn back the clock. Dumont’s use of the word “autonomist” to describe his politics also gave voters the chance to see him – depending on their own preferences – as a closet separatist or a Liberal ally on national questions. With Bush, some voters in 2000 emphasized “compassionate,” while others focused on “conservative.”

Both candidates signalled clearly they stood with the more conservative regions against the urban centres. And they did so while claiming they were anti-politics politicians, people who would make a break from the allegedly unresponsive metropolitan-focused politics of the past.

Dumont seized on a key opening in the Quebec political landscape, the absence of a genuine conservative party. Bush captured similar ground in 2000, as evangelical Christians warmed to a family-oriented conservative after feeling ignored by a Republican Party that nominated moderate U.S. Senator Bob Dole for president in 1996 and moderate Vice-President George H.W. Bush in 1988 (and for a second term in 1992).

Of course, there are important differences between the Bush and Dumont campaigns. Above all, organized religion plays a far more important role in U.S. politics than in Quebec. But the widespread belief that conservative, small-town values were under siege was a powerful weapon for both Bush and Dumont, regardless of how frequently their partisans went to church.

One other major difference is that Dumont does not control the levers of power after this election, as Bush did in the United States once the recounts stopped in Florida in 2000. To that, one can only say, we will see what happens during the Quebec equivalent of the Florida recount – the fate of what is now a highly unstable minority government in the National Assembly.

Stephen J. Farnsworth is the 2006-7 Canada-U.S. Fulbright Scholar at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.