If politicians are sometimes slow to learn from their mistakes, they almost always learn from their successes. Nowhere has this been more true than in the case of Jean Chretien. The Prime Minister assumed the highest office in the land in 1993, fully formed and developed as a politician. In his 32 years in office, he has assimilated a deep understanding of the inner workings of government and a keen sense of Canada and Canadians. This tutelage has taught him that the electorate he serves eschews extremism and instead values order, calm and stability. Over the years, he has adjusted his style and approach to government accordingly.

In a period of growing cynicism about politicians and diminishing expectations of the ability of government to solve problems, he has chosen incrementalism over vision. He does not anticipate problems; he nibbles away at their edges, as they arise. He may rattle his sabre at his enemies in public, but then will bend over backwards to find consensus behind closed doors. His ministers and caucus, who owe their position and victories to him, have marched in time with his slow, tempered drumming and adopted this style as their own. Three successive electoral wins have reinforced the wisdom of his approach.

This is not criticism. Far from it. There is an argument to be made that Chretien has been successful precisely because he has been the right politician for the times. He has governed with a finesse that has conformed, absolutely, to the expectations and demands the electorate has placed on him. Since Sept. 11, however, there is growing evidence that Chretien’s political style — and the lessons learned from his uncanny success — are no longer serving him well.

In the period following the terrorist attacks, Canadians have come to accept that governments, once again, are relevant. Not only do they believe that markets, business and deregulation will not protect them in these uncertain times, but there is a growing view that an unquestioning faith in these forces, at least in part, is responsible for their sense of vulnerability. Few are prepared to claim, any longer, that the private sector is most efficient in providing airport security or protecting airline passengers, let alone rooting out the perpetrators of their fear.

Added to the continuing anxiety over security, escalating economic uncertainty has pushed the population even closer to government. In fact, in a stunning reversal from past demonstrations of antipathy to public-sector intervention into the economy, an Ipsos-Reid poll reported last month that 78 per cent of Canadians believe “special measures are urgently required from the federal government” to deal with a possible recession.

Not only is the public demanding more activism from government, but the staunchest defenders of our former laissez-faire regime — in private enterprise — are now also pressing government to take initiatives on their behalf. The airlines are calling for bailouts and loan guarantees. Generic pharmaceutical companies are seeking relief from patent protection to, they say, better serve the public in an emergency.

Less publicly, the business community is waging a ferocious lobby to harmonize our customs and excise regulations, urging the government to enter into a North American security perimeter in order to guarantee the free flow of goods and services across the Canada-U.S. border. The even greater irony is that whatever the federal government has done in these areas, it has been deemed to be “not enough” by these various constituencies.

It would appear, meanwhile, that the Prime Minister and his government are having serious difficulty adjusting to this new environment. Where other world leaders were quick to voice their outrage and plans to deal with the terrorist threat, Chretien was tentative and nearly invisible. Virtually every initiative since then has been marked by hesitation, equivocation and contradiction. First, sky marshals were to be put on Canadian flights; then they weren’t; then they were, but only on flights to Washington. A trial balloon was floated that Ottawa would take over airport security, which was immediately popped and now may be slowly re-inflated. After broaching the possibility of applying a sunset clause to the more controversial parts of the terrorism bill, Chretien then adamantly refused to grant his critics this small pacifier, only to fall silent when his justice minister accepted these amendments two weeks later. Ministerial contractions and counter-claims have left free-trade supporters and economic nationalists alike trying to comprehend where the government stands on border issues.

It would be easy to excuse each of these missteps, given the extraordinary circumstances in which they have been made. But taken together, they suggest more than mere mismanagement or bad communications. What we are witnessing appears to be nothing less than a government that has no playbook, template or context to assist it in altering its past behaviour to fit these new, pressing times. Cracks are beginning to show in the seamless Chretien style because the approach that has always worked has been inappropriate in meeting the challenges at hand.

To date, the Liberals’ stumbling has been most evident on the security file. But we are likely to see fissures opening even wider in the months ahead as the government attempts to come to grips with the failing economy. If the Chretien approach to government has been the cornerstone of his success, the rest of the foundation has been built on deficit reduction and the stewardship of government finances. This substantive area of achievement not only best typifies the Chretien approach (saying No instead of Yes) but is also cited more than anything else as the greatest accomplishment of his eight years in power. The fallout from Sept. 11 threatens to tarnish that shining mantle.

Three forces alone will deplete the government’s projected surplus in rapid order. The sputtering economy will slow the torrent of revenue Ottawa has enjoyed in recent years. Commitments made to the military, airport and border security already surpass $2 billion. And the government has made binding commitments to reduce taxes and increase transfers to the provinces that will take effect next year.

Then there is another complicating factor. We are dealing with a government whose every move is played out against the backdrop of Chretien’s impending retirement. Paul Martin’s instincts tell him to do everything in his power to prevent slipping into a deficit position. That is both by temperament and his interest in protecting a balanced budget that he sees as his legacy, and not his Prime Minister’s. But at a time when the U.S. is preparing to spend whatever it takes to wage war on terrorism and recession, and the Canadian electorate, business community and provinces are all calling for bold new initiatives, this don’t-worry-be-happy-do-nothingism is destined to leave Martin appearing isolated and flat-footed.

Sensing the front-runner’s vulnerability, other leadership contenders in the cabinet will side with increasingly vocal constituencies who are lobbying for spending initiatives, all the while casting themselves as representatives of a new generation and style of leadership.

The signs of this showdown are already apparent. Brian Tobin is positioning himself as the activist progressive — no terrorist in a cave will deter him from pursuing an agenda of innovation and development. John Manley, formerly deemed too dull and pedantic to assume the highest office, has landed the plumb position as chief of the cabinet committee on security, only to find his colleagues calling for the dismantling of his perch. Justice Minister Anne McLellan tries to preserve her civil libertarian credentials by accommodating critics of her anti-terrorist legislation, and has her legs cut off by colleagues who want to fortify their flank with hard-line supporters of law and order. Meanwhile, Jean Chretien, seeking to put his final stamp on what he publicly acknowledges as his legacy issues — environmental protection, aboriginal rights and Canada’s role in the world — muses that the coming budget will double Canada’s financial commitment to foreign aid.

All of this is enough to give Paul Martin a migraine and send the opposition — if there were one — into paroxysms of joy. For eight years, the Canadian ship of state has had its keel very deep in rather shallow water. Now, the unanticipated forces unleashed by the events of Sept. 11 are combining to brew a volatile cocktail that threatens the very calm, cautious and stable government that Canadians have come to value. When Paul Martin brings down his first budget in almost two years next week, it will be interesting to see if Chretien and his colleagues have been able to learn from their recent mistakes rather than their past successes.