The year is 1984. The setting is Ottawa, Canada. The scene is a debate between the top three parties of that nation: the ruling Liberals led by John Turner, the Opposition Progressive Conservatives led by Brian Mulroney, and the New Democrats led by Ed Broadbent. The storyline is a federal election.
And now for the background: You see, the United States wasn't the only nation having an important election that year. Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister for the most of the last 16 years and the man whose shadow loomed large in every corner of Canadian federal politics for the same time, has finally decided to retire for good. In his stead, John Turner had been elected by the Liberal Party as its leader and, consequently, Canada's Prime Minister, despite not holding a seat in the House of Commons at the time. It was time for a referendum on Trudeaumania and the Trudeau years. and it was up to Mr. Turner to lead the Liberal party to it's fifth victory in six consecutive elections (there had been, for a few months from 1979 to 1980 a government led by the Tory Joe Clark after Trudeau retired the first time before he came back to defeat Clark).
While the polls had shown a Trudeau-led Liberal Party losing to Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives, John Turner fared much better. A series of slip ups and gaffes, however, caused Turner to slip. Still, by the time of the second leaders' debate, polls showed he had as much as a nine point lead over Mulroney's Tories.
But, one of the biggest issues of that election was set against Mr. Turner: a controversy over patronage. In his final days in office, Trudeau had recommended to Governor-General Jeanne Sauvé over 200 Liberal appointments to various posts, including judges, senators, and positions on various governmental and crown corporation boards. It was a deeply unpopular move, as it reeked of one that Turner had the power to stop since they were not yet finalized. He could have advised the governor-general to cancel the appointments (which Sauvé would have been obligated to do under Canadian constitutional practice), but he did not because it ran the risk of alienating Trudeau's wing of the Liberal party.
He didn't stop there. He even appointed more Liberals to positions in the government. Had Turner waited until 1985, the latest he was constitutionally allowed to call an election, there was a chance the issue could have blown over at least some by then, but instead, four days after he assumed office on June 30, 1984, he called for an election, which would take place on September 4 of that year.
In the meantime, Brian Mulroney didn't exactly help himself. It surfaced that he was allegedly planning a patronage machine of his own in case of a victory. Apparently, he, too wanted to get his nose in at the public trough--allegedly, of course.
So now, we arrive at the debate, John Turner brought this fact up, even though he was vulnerable on the issue himself. He started what he probably intended to be his own blistering attack on Mulroney for making these plans, arguing that he "wouldn't offer Canadians any newness in the style of government" and that Mulroney plans reminded Turner of "patronage at its best".
Mulroney, though, had a history dealing with these kinds of situations excellently. He was a star debater for St. Francis Xavier University's debate team and had won numerous public speaking contests there, and he also served as Prime Minister in the campus' model parliament. In his professional life, he had negotiated the end to several strikes in Montreal. Needless to say, he was quite used to the heat of the debate.
So, in the middle of Turner's attack, Mulroney fired back with the following: "I have gone so far because I believe what you did was so bad...I've gone so far, sir, to apologize... for even kidding about it. I've apologized to the Canadian people for kidding about it. The least you should do is to apologize for having made these horrible appointments."
Clearly shaken by Mulroney's retort, John Turner could only respond, "I had no option."
The moderators were content to leave it at that, but before they could get to the next question, Mulroney thundered back:
"You had an option, sir. You could have said, 'I am not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada, and I am not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.' You had an option, sir — to say 'no' — and you chose to say 'yes' to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party. That sir, if I may say respectfully, that is not good enough for Canadians."
Turner could only mumble "I had no option," again.
At this point, a clearly angry Mulroney blasted:
"That is an avowal of failure. That is a confession of non-leadership. And this country needs leadership. You had an option, sir. You could have done better."
It was a classic example of a "knockout blow" politically, and it really deserves to be seen:
Now it was the Conservatives with the nine-point lead in the polls. Allan Gregg, the Conservative pollster at the time, told Mulroney it was the greatest single change in the numbers since polling began in Canada. A few weeks later, Brian Mulroney became Canada's eighteenth prime minister. He won 211 seats, more than any party ever had before, or since. No one doubted the turning point of the campaign. "You had an option, sir" is now part of our political lexicon.
In American politics, the closest we come to this in presidential politics is probably Ronald Reagan's "There you go again," or his retort when asked about his age in 1984. Outside of that, the best example (and probably the closest we have) is Joseph Welch's "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"
I look at what Brian Mulroney said and think to myself how applicable that phrase is to our times. There are so many occasions over the past three and a half years where Barack Obama had an option to do the right thing but instead chose the wrong path. The debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is but one example, especially in light of yesterday's ruling.
Mr. Obama, you had an option to say no to levying the biggest tax increase in American history. You had an option to ensure that this bill passed honestly and transparently, without all the kickbacks and other goodies that are so endemic to the typical way of Washington, DC. You had an option to listen to the American people and know that this bill wasn't what they wanted. You had an option to pass a healthcare law that harnessed the powerful forces of the free market and a free people.
Even beyond healthcare, we find the phrase applicable. Mr. Obama, you had an option to give us a real budget--not one that couldn't even get votes from your own party. You had an option, you could have kept us from going almost 1200 days without a budget passed. You had an option to tell Harry Reid to stop sitting on his hands and bring a budget up for a vote.
You had an option, you could have said no to so many different wasted green energy loans to companies like Solyndra. You had an option, you could have avoided giving us the billion dollar boondoggle (another Canadian-coined phrase) stimulus and bailouts. You had an option, you could have pushed your ideas about immigration policy, however wrong they might be, in Congress when your party controlled the House and Senate for the first two years of you Presidency.
Shortly after Bart Stupak sold his soul to Obamacare, I mentioned Mr. Mulroney's quote in a post endorsing Dan Benishek for Congress from MI-1 (a seat that he won). I edited it so that it would work for America. Here's what I came up with:
You had an option, sir. You could have said, ‘I am not going to do it. This is wrong for America, and I am not going to ask Americans to pay the price.’ You had an option, sir — to say ‘no’ — and you chose to say ‘yes’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Democratic Party. That sir, if I may say respectfully, that is not good enough for Americans.
How true every single bit of that quote is for President Obama. There are so many instances where he could have said "No," for our country's sake. No to more spending. No to trillion dollar deficits. No to 1200 days without a budget. No to an unpopular healthcare law. No to adding 800,000 newly legitimized illegal aliens to the workforce. No to apology tours. No to so many other things that have damaged our country at home and abroad. But instead, he said yes, and we're worse off for it.
Too often, he has blamed his problems on everyone but himself, especially George Bush. It's an excuse for failure, and too often, he has been absent when our country needed leadership. We can do so much better.
I really hope Mitt Romney can deliver a similar knockout blow in the campaign and the debates. I think it's important to use the debates, because it might be the only time we can compare Romney and Obama side-by-side. Obama has a glass jaw. He folds like a cheap suit under pressure. Once you get past all the media hype about how wise, intelligent, and all around great he is, he's quite an easy target, as long as you're willing to go after him without fear.