Hope Hidden in the Lies
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Hope Hidden in the Lies

When serious people join the conversation and a real choice looms, Rob Ford might just fade away.

municipal election 2014

Of all forms of lying, making predictions is the most socially acceptable.

A few barely heard voices tell us there will be a provincial election within a few months’ time. But the only thing that anybody I know wants to talk about is who will be the mayor-elect of Toronto nine months from now. The Ford horrors have lent a completely unrealistic yet undeniable urgency to the question.

One is tempted to say that battle lines are being drawn early, except for that to happen the generals would have to be in the field. They would certainly have to exist. But so far, the would-be leaders prefer to skulk in the weeds while the war cry rises. Neither they nor anybody else has the foggiest idea of what will happen in the coming months. The polls are purely recreational.

Ergo, it is a perfect time to make predictions.

I predict that Rob Ford will fade away, so much so that he might not even have enough juice left by November to spoil anybody else’s chance of winning. I foresee a time when Olivia Chow, watching her lead diminish as right-wing voters get serious and fall in behind a legitimate contender, turns to defending the wounded warrior as a fellow champion of the anti-establishment. But much of his Nation defects nonetheless.

Today, studying polls that have no bearing on reality, we marvel at Ford Nation’s remarkable loyalty despite every wicked thing its leader does. Most new incidents inspire a poll that shows his support has only increased. The inescapable logic is that Ford can win simply by continuing to disgrace himself on a regular basis until November, at which time he will stumble stupefied into the mayor’s chair with a hooker on one arm and a needle in the other.

Really? The only credible aspect of any such scenario is that Ford will indeed continue to disgrace himself and humiliate Toronto. That is the one consistent pattern we can rely on, the stablest basis from which to make any predictions. But it is far less certain that voters will continue to be so forgiving.

Things change when serious people join the conversation and a real choice looms. Granted, nothing of that sort happened in 2010, when a weak field and an insufficiently disgraced demagogue combined to inspire a massive outbreak of civic irresponsibility. But that we will call an anomaly. The 2014 campaign is shaping into something much more like the 2003 contest that brought an end to the crazy and corrupt Lastman years—and that campaign remains the unquestioned highpoint of political discourse in 21st century Toronto.

The context was almost identical: Mel Lastman had repeatedly humiliated Toronto on the world stage and the city was aching for redemption. A trio of top-quality candidates vied to replace him, and the quality of their debate was remarkable. It was redemption in itself, a true contest of ideas led by three exceptionally articulate champions.

In response, dopey Melville got serious, the left swung with extraordinary discipline behind one favoured candidate, and the utterly unpredicted result (except by me) was Mayor David Miller.

Rob Ford’s best hope of winning in November is the bloodbath he predicted late last year, a multi-candidate melee in which the last man standing wins. But so far, there’s little sign of it. The spontaneous discipline that appeared a decade ago is showing itself again, especially on the left.

The most remarkable fact about the 2014 mayoralty campaign so far is not that it is already going strong but that there is still not a single declared candidate to represent hundreds of thousands of progressive voters. Dozens of legitimate aspirants, charismatic dreamers, dark horses, and crackpots alike are obediently sitting on their hands and biting their tongues as the left’s one and only champion slowly and portentously doffs her veils.

The performance may be irritating, but it’s no less impressive for all that. The left is looking very solid, the right dangerously divided. But to continue the 2003 analogy, Olivia Chow’s dominating semi-presence and spectacular polling numbers are eerily similar to the supposed advantages once enjoyed by Barbara Hall. And even if the rest of Toronto has forgotten, every politico remembers what happened to her.

There’s no reason to suspect that the right can’t benefit from the same sort of voter discipline that brought Miller to power a decade ago—dumping Rob Ford, in other words, in favour of a more respectable candidate like John Tory. That is arguably the only way forward for Ford Nation now, and you can be sure that the mayor’s right-wing rivals will be making that argument at every opportunity.

Will Rob Ford really just fade away? He remains so stubbornly dominant today, and the consensus among those who want to see him go has always been that he is much more likely to explode. But past evidence suggests megacity voters are not always idiots. Given how Ford has dragged us all through his muck, it would be wrong to underestimate the appeal of a fresh start under respectable leadership.