At the best of times, pain is annoying. It's a dull headache, a twisted ankle. It's a nagging worry, a bruised feeling. At the worst of times, pain is all-consuming - a limb right broken, a heart torn asunder, a slow evisceration.
The dramatic has a way of upstaging the merely bothersome. It's the first-things-first law of human attention. It's the worry-about-that-later approach to prioritization. And, no matter where you stand, whether a Conservative, a Liberal or the lower-case version of either, it's bound to be the source of much frustration.
Budget days, eh? Enter some of the darker hours of spin, the dizzying and molesting vortex of rhetoric, promise, deceit, shortcoming, overshooting, bickering, movement erosion and grandstanding, all for white-knuckled political survival - no matter how short-lived.
It's the economy, stupid. James Carville birthed that itty, bitty idiomatic giant over a decade ago. These days, you see the man's glossy, bespectacled dome on CNN, blazing his pundit's guns from the Democratic side of high noon. But, in 1992, during the White House run between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Carville was a campaign strategist - and a clever one at that.
Bush senior had foreign policy credit. Gobs of it. He helmed the end of the Cold War,and looked good throughout the first Persian Golf tussle. Carville's phrase, combined, of course, with other facets of the fight, brought Bush approval ratings down by tens of percentage points. In a very real way, the recession cost him the election. For millions of people, it was the economy, not foreign policy.
And that's fine. It's always partly the economy, isn't it? Money and jobs are integrated at least partially into pretty much anything of political tone. Arts and culture? Money, money. Family values? First you fundraise, then you lobby. International relations? Derail the coming trade wars. Arctic sovereignty? Ships, baby, ships. Voter contentment, also known as apathy? Just give me a clock to punch and a cheque to cash. So much of it comes down to only that.
The economy becomes a sort of euphemism for the rest of our problems. Climate change is now just a headache, forgettable next to all these smashed limbs haemorrhaging jobs and writhing in fear. To the same end, Afghanistan is soft news at the end of a broadcast. Nothing is anything without spending, and the economy is the source of all that, so why don't we just think of those two files in one much simpler term? Thank you, language. You're not so much a clear sky as a magic trick that makes the rain invisible.
Certainly, many of these things figure into the Stephen Harper budget to some degree. But they get funnelled through a larger, more controlling perspective. Consider these opening lines from the Finance Ministry's website: "Budget 2008 continues reducing debt and taxes, focuses government spending and provides additional support for sectors of the economy that are struggling in this period of uncertainty."
Now consider them last year: "Our strong fiscal position provides Canada with an opportunity that few other countries have - to make broad-based tax reductions that will strengthen our economy and leave more money in the pockets of ordinary Canadians."
And now the year before: "In Budget 2006, the Government is keeping its word to Canadians and implementing its five core commitments, building a better Canada through measures in the following areas..." Those were accountability, GST cuts, security, families and restoring the fiscal imbalance.
There's a creeping change there. Sure, it says nothing of climate change, Afghanistan, arctic sovereignty, arts and culture. Those things were all in there, though - just as they still are, whether in the red, black or grey. What's most interesting is this line from the 2008 introduction: "...providing additional support for sectors of the economy struggling in this period of uncertainty."
You know what that means, right? For some of us, it's great news. For others, not so much. Either way, it's economic speak for the death - or at least the slow evisceration - of conservatism as Canadians have come to know it. After all those years of uniting the right, here it is: big, blue government, fat with deficit, not much of an end in sight.
Some people are in tears over this. The fact of Tom Flannagan's public laments is just further evidence against this government's illegitimacy. They didn't have the popular vote - and now they don't have the support of their support base.
Of course it's the economy. At least partly. But it's quite a few other things, too. And we'd do well to keep those nouns alive in the public debate. After all, a cut untended usually gets a little gangrenous. And amputations are seldom a party.