Much has been written and said the past couple of days about the Conservatives' complete abandonment of conservatism. What's been less discussed, so far, is the weirdly non-ideological election it's going to give us whenever the Liberals decide we're due for one.
Some form of realignment will likely restore a legitimate ideological divide between our two main electoral options, but it's not imminent.
Having taken less than three years in office to foresake a 20-year movement, and under one of the most ostensibly conservative leaders in Canadian history at that, it will be some time before the Conservatives can credibly veer back to the right. Perhaps some group of New Democrats and left-leaning Liberals will eventually supplant either the Liberals or the Conservatives as the main alternative to whichever of those two is in power, but the death of the coalition isn't exactly pointing us in that direction. If our system is going to fragment into a bunch of narrower, more ideologically-driven parties, the failure of the Green Party to date suggests it'll only happen after major electoral reform that's nowhere near the agenda right now.
And so we're headed toward at least one election, and possibly quite a few more than that, in which personality is likely to play an even more dominant role than we've come to expect.
That sounds like an inherently bad thing for Stephen Harper, but it's not necessarily that simple. He's demonstrated before - notably during the 2005-06 election - that he's capable of presenting himself in a sympathetic light for a sustained (if finite) period. And even if it's no longer possible for him to sell that image - it proved mighty difficult during last fall's campaign, and that was before the subsequent unpleasantness - it's not necessarily warm-and-fuzzy that people are looking for. Although he's been acting anything but cool and collected the past couple of months, he may still come off as the coollest and most collected of the available options.
Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, is enjoying a tremendous honeymoon right now. But there's no way of telling how his slightly wry aloofness - which is endearing in small doses - will play over a five-week campaign. Although he's dramatically improved as a retail politician since his first run at the Liberal leadership, the guy still stinks of Rosedale, which the Conservatives may well be able to turn to their advantage.
That tilts toward the unpleasant prospect of our next campaign(s) being even more nasty and bitter than our last one, if that seems possible. In the absence of legitimate differences over how their opponents want to run the country, the Liberals and Conservatives may fall back on the most unseemly of personal attacks to differentiate themselves from one another. Granted, with Ignatieff trying diligently to rise above the fray, those attacks might be disproportionately directed from one side toward the other. But as Stephane Dion demonstrated, it's amazing how one can get sucked into these things.
Of course, there's a way out of this. A campaign absent of competing ideologies needn't be absent of competing ideas; as debate over what should be included in the budget demonstrated, there's more than one centrist (or centre-left, or whatever you want to call it) solution to every challenge.
The problem is that to present those ideas writ large is much riskier than the traditional sops that reliably underscore ideological differences and invigorate support bases (social programs on the centre-left, tax cuts on the centre-right, and so on). The massive failure of the Green Shift, an attempt to overhaul the tax system that couldn't really be easily classified as right or left (or at least wouldn't have been if Stephane Dion had planned and sold it properly), will be considerable disincentive to similarly ambitious experimentation.
Pray that the parties decide to give it a shot anyway. If so, we could be in for some fascinating debate free of the usual ideological constraints. If not, we're in for a popularity contest that will likely come down to which option is less dislikable.