'No-Can-Do' Politician


Vancouver.--She wants to be Canada's new leader for the new age. And why not? She's a she. She's smart. She is, all agree, "interesting." And she all but admits that politicians are useless against the global economy.

She is Kim Campbell who, in a bold gambit to hang onto her brief prime-ministership, campaigns on this prediction: Under her leadership Canada's 11 percent-plus unemployment rate will not drop much until at least the year 2000. People want the truth, she shrugs. When Ms. Campbell speaks her truths, hope gets downsized.

That seemed to make brilliant political sense until recent polls surprised everyone by showing Ms. Campbell, ahead a month ago, now in a steep free fall. Politicians looking for the right spin on downsizing would do well to study her story.

Few gave Ms. Campbell a chance a year ago. As a Tory (Progressive Conservative) loyalist from Vancouver, she faithfully served the least popular Canadian leader in modern history, Brian Mulroney. When Mr. Mulroney resigned last spring, the Tories gave Ms. Campbell the job pending national elections next week.

On the stump from the start, Ms. Campbell distanced herself from Mr. Mulroney by focusing on his blarney rather than the conservative policies they share. When Mr. Mulroney was in, Canadians thought they hated him for his free-trade deals that helped send a flood of industrial jobs south. In less than a year, Ms. Campbell has made them believe that free trade is inevitable -- the global economy, stupid! -- but that Mr. Mulroney's overly rosy scenarios were the real problem.

The prime minister combines her one message -- eliminate the deficit in five years -- with the notion that borderless capital has now made Keynes' once trusty tool, federal spending, obsolete. If a nation's economy is lucky enough to grow, she tells voters, that's no reason to expect jobs to increase, too. Most Canadians, polls show, now think any government is helpless to affect their economy.

Ingeniously, Ms. Campbell joins this post-industrial fatalism to post-modern feel-good imagery borrowed from Bill Clinton. She advertises herself as someone "new" for the "politics of inclusion," a corporate feminist who is "change." And, in a version of Mr. Clinton's shades-and-sax attack on stodginess, she posed for a famous bare-shouldered, safely risque portrait.

Like Mr. Clinton, she shares her human frailties. If Bill caused pain in his marriage and can't kick Big Macs, well, Kim admits she goes home at night a twice-divorced and lonely woman. She's even said she knows her butt ("bum" as they call it here) is too big.

Like Mr. Clinton, she flatters efficiently. "Read your book, loved it," she told a writer-broadcaster who is gay when they chanced to meet. Although Ms. Campbell is poor on gay issues, the writer says he will vote for her. "It's a matter of style and personality."

Ms. Campbell couldn't have asked for a better closest opponent: a beat-up-looking Liberal veteran who talks out of the side of his mouth like a Quebecois union boss. Jean Chretien flogs his printed, $2 billion plan for rebuilding the infrastructure and putting Canadians back to work (echoing President Clinton's forgotten ideas rather than his media savvy.) Hopelessly retro, Mr. Chretien thinks activist government can improve lives.

Still, at least it's apparent why he wants to be prime minister. Why, on the other hand, should Kim Campbell get a job she defines so emptily? That's a conundrum her coming generation of no-can-do candidates, wherever they are on the globe, must face.

Ms. Campbell tried to resolve it with this implied answer: vote for me because my own aspirations are so powerful. In the new economy, sheer brightness and ambition must not be thwarted. So we learn of Kim's hungry run for high school president, her fast climb to the top of the party (doubly hard for a woman), her quick wit -- sometimes too blunt, too new. Like Bill, the boy from Hope who touched Kennedy, she projects a story that yearns to be completed, and she offers voters the chance to write the happy ending.

For many months they seemed willing to do that, but now they won't, judging from successive polls which show Ms. Campbell dropping from a clear lead to a dead-heat to far behind. If Canadians largely share her pessimism about government, they are throwing big support to upstart regional parties that more neatly mirror their lives.

The logging and farming and mining townspeople of the West see themselves in the restrained anger of the Reform Party's fast-rising Preston Manning, a dour Ross Perot type who wants a whiter Canada and the deficit gone in three years. In Quebec, they are thronging to Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc Quebecois, who wants to break away from Canada entirely.

Ironically, it looks like Ms. Campbell's Tories and the various other parties of pessimistic "truth" will split each other's votes. This will leave Liberal Jean Chretien, the lone true believer in government, to become the next prime minister of Canada -- a country that, like many other western economies, pins more and more of its hope on global money, and expects less and less of its politicians.

David Beers, a free-lance writer, wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

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