Tag Archives: john ibbitson

Reforming Government on the Globe & Mail's Wiki

A few months ago John Ibbitson – the Globe and Mail columnist who used to cover Ottawa and now covers Washington, DC – asked me if I’d help edit the 3rd chapter of his new book, Open & Shut.

The chapter, entitled Yes, Mr. President; No, Prime Minister asks why is it that after 8 years of President Bush, President Obama is able to quickly change the direction of government whereas in Canada, newly elected parties often struggle to implement their agenda.

Last week the book was released. As part of the launch process the Globe and Mail created a wiki dedicated to the book’s themes where readers can critic or expand on its ideas and analysis. More interestingly, as readers post to the wiki John will respond to their  ideas, critics and thoughts on a blog hosted by the Globe.

To kick off the wiki on Open Government, John asked me if I would write a short essay answering the following the question:

Federal politicians, and federal public servants, seem increasingly remote and disconnected from the lives of Canadians. Open and Shut maintains that this is because the public service remains closed to outsiders, and because Ottawa has ceded so much power to the provinces. Do we want our federal government to matter more in our lives, and if so, what should we do to give it meaning?

You can see my response, and what I hope will eventually become a growing number of comments on the future of the public service, here.

As an aside, two other sections have been created. One is on Open Politics, which is teed up by John Duffy (political strategist). The other is on Canada/US integration, which is kicked off by Scotty Greenwood (executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council).

What happened to Ibbitson?

The Globe’s John Ibbitson has always been one of my favourite columnists – Paul Wells may capture the politics of Ottawa best, but Ibbitson got and wrote most effectively on the issues, challenges and tensions that drove public policy in the capital. For a policy junkies like myself his Globe column was a daily must read.

This is why I’ve been unsure how to approach his coverage of the US primaries.

Firstly, and very much forgivable, he read the whole thing wrong when, back in October he pronounced that:

No, we’re not declaring that the New York senator has as good as won the 2008 presidential election. Anything can happen in politics, and anything usually does. But Ms. Clinton is the leading candidate, in both the Democratic and the Republican campaigns: Her own nomination is virtually assured… (Italics mine)

As stated above, many people believed that Obama would never go anywhere (except, of course, us Obama fans – in part out of blind faith and in part out of a belief that because many independents view Hillary as unelectable democrats would not easily nominate her).

But more recently there have been stories that haven’t jived with what I’ve been reading in the US papers. Take for example, yesterday’s article entitled Can his money trump her machine in the most expensive primary yet?. Which, I believe, misrepresents the dynamics of the race. The best example of this is in the 4th paragraph:

It all comes down to organization. Who can get out more of their vote? The answer reveals a simple but profound difference between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. In Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, he has the money; she has the machine. (my italics)

The analysis is correct – the machine often matters more than money – the problem is that few American commentaries agree with that assessment. From everything I’ve read in the US press the broad consensus is that Obama’s machine has been more effective and better organized (according to Time Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, as well as Chris Tucker and Chris Matthews of MSNBC. Indeed, the one exception to this is New Hampshire where pretty much everyone agreed Clinton had a better organization.)

Obama’s superior organization accounts for why he’s dominated the caucuses (where organization matters most) and why, earlier on in the primary season, when Hillary had the money, he was still able to compete. Things may have shifted and Hillary may now have the superior machine, but I’ve not read that elsewhere. She clearly does have deeper roots into the party – but this is a different matter and not the same thing as an organization. (Interestingly, one reason her machine may be weak is that she may have counted on her party connections and a media blitz funded by her initial financial advantage to enable her to crush her opponents quickly, causing her to underinvest in a national organization.)

Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania has far more to do with the fact that it simply has more voters she appeals to: white, middle-aged and baby boomer, blue collar workers. If anything, Pennsylvania was designed for Clinton (just like North Carolina is designed for Obama). The problem is, she may only barely beat him in Pennsylvania, whereas he’ll thump her in North Carolina.

Which brings us to the final part of this piece – don’t expect Clinton to move on, even with a win. Machines may matter more than money, but you’ve got to at least have some dough. If Clinton doesn’t win big in Pennsylvania, she may (but may not!) hobble into Indiana and North Carolina. Either way she simply won’t have the resources to go beyond that barring some catastrophic failure on the part of the Obama campaign.

This campaign is probably over. All Obama has to do is sit back and be quiet. Above all, don’t say a word about Clinton – if he’s seen to be trying to muscle her out he’ll look bad. Let her either get there on her own, or let the party establishment do the work for him. I’m hoping Ibbitson’s next column is about Obama vs. McCain!