Thursday, February 05, 2009

Harper's No. 2 guy leaving

Despite a heavy dose of spinning, this doesn't look good: "Harper's election architect returning to private sector."
Patrick Muttart, one of the architects of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's last two political campaign victories, is quitting.

The decision of the 37-year-old marketing whiz to return to the private sector, likely in the United States where his wife's family lives, leaves a big gap in Harper's inner circle at a time when the Prime Minister's judgment and leadership during a deepening economic crisis are under intense scrutiny.

Senior Conservative sources told the Star that Muttart's decision to leave in the spring is "personal" and that he had never intended to remain in Ottawa after overseeing the political strategy for the party in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Harper spokesperson Kory Teneycke, clearly concerned about how the loss of Muttart at this politically sensitive juncture might be portrayed, called the Star, unsolicited, to say "there's no story here. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
Kind of difficult to ignore, however, the circumstances in which this move takes place. Harper's at what has to be the lowest point of his tenure as PM. And as noted in the report, the new chief of staff Guy Giorno's been shaking things up since he arrived. Further, we had someone pointedly telling the Globe about a week ago that "the grown-ups" were in charge of the budget process in the PMO, implying that staff were being displaced by new more senior hands. So while it's possible that this is a personal move, it's just as likely that they're shaking things up in order to survive because what got them to this point has not been working.

Muttart, the Star report notes, is the "marketing" whiz of the Harper government. In that vein, note what Lawrence Martin writes in his column today about what the Canadian people are in the market for at the moment, politically speaking:

Dumbing down has been equated since the Reagan era with having the common touch. But, according to pollster Frank Graves, there is a growing appetite in Canada for a more sophisticated, intellectual form of leadership. It comes not just from Barack Obama's having lit the fuse, Mr. Graves says, but from our own experience and conditions. We haven't had the elevated style since Pierre Trudeau, who remains, according to polls, Canada's most admired PM.

Since that era, it's been largely populist and visionless. The country's politics have swung so low in recent years not just on account of Mr. Harper, who exists almost entirely in the realm of tactics, but on account of Liberal leaders as well.

"We've been punching well below our intellectual weight," says Mr. Graves. "We have the most educated public we have ever had but, instead of reaching higher to them, our politicians go the other way." They should understand, he says, that "you don't have to be aw-shucks and lowbrow to relate to average people. Average people are smart. Obama's victory showed that. On the Republican side, Sarah Palin was making George Bush look like a Nobel Prize winner."

Throw all that into the mix as context for this departure as well.