Exit Mulroney

February 26, 1993

Brian Mulroney fell from power in Canada after doing everything right. Deeply unpopular, he resigned as Conservative Party leader so his successor can run for prime minister as the incumbent this fall. Mr. Mulroney has been an anchor around his party's neck. Perhaps the successor can wring victory from certain defeat.

What Mr. Mulroney did right was cut spending and increase revenue through an unpopular sales tax to reduce the deficit, lower import barriers to spur trade, deregulate much of the economy and hold down inflation. His great monument is the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Its twin is the coming inclusion of Mexico -- unpopular in Canada -- which the Conservative majority in parliament is likely to ratify before facing the voters.

With Canada still in recession, Mr. Mulroney's achievements didn't help him in the polls. He has won two elections and has served nearly eight years -- roughly what the U.S. Constitution allows a president. It is long enough. Doing the right thing won him re-election in 1988, which is the proper lesson for President Clinton to draw.

Mr. Mulroney's great failure was in the search for Canadian federal unity. His formula was rejected in referendum last October. As a bilingual Quebecer of Irish ancestry, he seemed the ideal choice to bring Canadians together. He certainly tried, and offered Quebec more than previous agreements. Yet his approach was rejected by all sides.

Canada is back to Square One on the constitution. In the U.S., it is fair to say, the economy determines who will be president but foreign policy is the most important thing the president does. The variant in Canada is that the economy chooses the prime minister but constitution-making is his or her most important challenge.

The opposition Liberal Party is led by Jean Chretien, a protege of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It leads in the polls for the election later this year. The question is how effectively a fresh face can revive Conservative Party fortunes. In a hung parliament, the left-wing New Democratic Party would be kingmaker.

As for Mr. Mulroney, he is stepping down at age 53 after successes that will hold his reputation high with future historians. He is one of those remarkable conservatives in English-speaking countries who defined the 1980s, along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and he made a more lasting imprint on his nation than most predicted when he rushed in from private life to rescue his sagging party in 1983.

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