He appalls us still. Just when we think we have heard every conceivable form of self-praise from Paul Martin, he invents some new foolishness. His worst enemies have to admit that he can always astonish us.
On Thursday night, addressing his troops a few minutes after the Speaker's tie-breaking vote kept the Liberal government marginally alive, Martin gave a performance so smug and bombastic that an otherwise ignorant listener would assume he had just won the general election by a handsome majority. Waving his arms, grinning with boyish joy, he ran through the conqueror's entire repertoire of cliches, from proud rejoicing to humble gratitude.
And he went farther still. Having barely saved his government and his career, having spent weeks conniving and conspiring to achieve this slimmest of all possible victories, he not only bragged about his triumph but insisted that it would have global consequences.
"We didn't just vote for a budget," he said. "What we voted for was a vision of a Canada dynamic and leading the world. We will set the standard by which other nations judge themselves."
Is there another politician anywhere who could make a statement so detached from reality? No one expects political rhetoric to accord strictly with the facts, but Martin carries hyperbole to the point of self-intoxication -- and never more than when he has compromised himself, as he did to get NDP support for the budget.
He seems to speak from another universe, a place where, in the words of a hit song from the 1930s, Wishing Will Make It So. Does he imagine that across the globe, from Indonesia to Uzbekistan, politicians will stop in the course of writing a law to ask themselves: Is this measure, however admirable we consider it, really up to Canadian standards?
Of course he imagines no such thing. He just takes Canada-flattering to new levels of absurdity. Politicians love to tell us we are a wonderful people, world-beaters at damn near everything. They believe we expect this sycophantic blarney, and perhaps we do. The phrase "Canadian values" summarizes this posturing. The values of Canadians, when examined, usually turn out to resemble values from many other places. But that never stops a politician from talking about Canada as if it were unique.
Martin and his colleagues combine voter-flattery with a sickening piety. They are painfully serious preachers who look down from great moral heights on those who do not agree with them and even propose to replace them. The newest of Liberals, Belinda Stronach, fits the pattern. On Tuesday, as she cut her leader's throat, and her boyfriend's too, she gave the camera her most sincere doe-eyed stare and told us that it wasn't easy for her to make this decision. She did it for Canada, she said, because she couldn't vote alongside the separatists. Off-stage, the squad of handlers she's hired to ease her way through politics must have allowed themselves a smile of satisfaction.
The Liberals have proven they can accommodate everyone. They have a millionaire businessman as prime minister, a billionaire businesswoman in charge of human resources and a socialist party telling them how to spend our money. As always, Liberals are the most flexible of our politicians, the quickest to seize the advantage, and the first to make it clear that they speak out of high-minded concern for the nation. Martin, in all these ways, has proven himself the ultimate Liberal.
How good it would be, how hopeful and heart-warming, if we could say that in this week's crisis Stephen Harper has been the shining exception to Ottawa's rancid mediocrity and embittered partisanship. But Harper did not come through as an exemplary leader. He was at his worst and least gracious when greeting the news of Belinda Stronach's betrayal. His response amounted to a sneer. He was quick to judge her motives and to insist that there were no principles involved in her decision to cross the floor. That diminished Harper, not Stronach. After all, her principles, however dodgy, were plenty good enough for him when she was voting on his side.
Certainly his response did not bring the word "statesman" to mind. As the week ground on, some of those who wish the Conservatives well were also hoping to see the government win Thursday's vote. While it means we'll have to endure probably the longest election campaign in Canadian history, eight months or more, Harper will need that time if he is to establish himself as the people's choice.