January 19, 2006

Liberal blues

This is not a campaign. Not really. Not any more.

You know you're in bad shape when your chief speechwriter's blog-o'-gags is widely considered to be the best part of your party's website (shouldn't he be writing speeches?).

You know something's wrong when you have to end all of your ads with "We are not making this up."

You know you're lacking leadership when the Prime Minister can't name a single difference between himself and the previous PM (Paul Martin was interrupted and embarassed twice by Peter Mansbridge for trying to identify "no more deficits" and "an independent foreign policy" as policy positions distinguishing him from Jean Chrétien.)

You know you've got no real plan when your "hail mary pass" involves reopening the Constitution.

It's not clear what happened to the big red machine in this election campaign, but it hasn't been pretty -- and not exactly in the way that I was expecting. There were plenty of policy announcements, more than I anticipated, but little meaty policy debate.

As has been the trend in recent years, the past two months have been more meta-campaign than actual campaign. Even Stephen Harper's pre-Christmas daily policy announcements couldn't take the edge off the grating daily polling numbers. It's disappointing that in a campaign that actually featured some real policy issues, the media still seems much more concerned with who is winning than whether they should be winning (to the point of some questionable practices on the timing of publication of polling data). The parties take shots at each other's ads, policy announcements, and platforms -- trotting out competing third-party "expert" endorsements and jockeying for position -- but this is kind of "meta" too. Negative ads about negative ads. Framing the other guy before he frames you ("Harper's hidden agenda" or "Paul Martin's scare tactics"). Pre-emptive strike after pre-emptive strike and, of course, as a result, policy platforms released barely a week before the election date.

The upshot of all this? Good luck finding out what you actually want to know. The media's not pressing, and from the candidates' perspective, why answer a dangerous question when you can just pin it on opposition tactics? ("Look, this is just another sad attempt by [that dastardly party] to trick Canadians into thinking we're [something that we are but are pretending not to be.] The real issue is [some totally unrelated issue.]").

On the political side, it's not news, of course, that Paul Martin did little to heal the deep rift he created in the Liberal Party, the final blow coming in exposing Sheila Copps to a nomination battle which she lost. So you won't see popular Chrétien-era ex-Ministers -- and strong campaigners -- like John Manley, Brian Tobin, Martin Cauchon, and, yes, even Sheila Copps -- coming out to do battle for Martin's Liberals.

Ironically enough, you don't see Martin's own stars sticking their heads up much these days either. As far as I can tell, most of them are either fighting for their political lives or laying relatively low, not too eager to be associated with the (excuse the CSL pun) sinking ship. No Dryden. No Garneau. And certainly no Michael "I love Ukraine" Ignatieff. The only prominent Ministers who seem to be doing national-level campaigning are Ujjal Dosanjh and Anne McLellan.

This is the proverbial "third strike" for Paul Martin. The knives will be out for (ex-)PMPM after this election. Despite seeking the highest office for nearly twelve years, he seemed confused and directionless (remember Mr. Dithers?) as Prime Minister after Jean Chrétien's departure. He then embarked on the now-infamous "mad as hell" tour to tell Canadians they should be angry with the Liberal Party, before stumbling into his first election and barely surviving it. Now, after a shaky minority Parliament, his time appears to be up. How he has kept the same core team advising him all this time and how they failed to foresee (and plan against) many of the pitfalls of this and the previous election is truly mind-boggling. Suffice it to say that the most compelling argument I've read for Liberal re-election was, ironically, embedded in the Globe and Mail's endorsement of the Conservative Party, which begins with "Canada has been well served by 12-plus years of Liberal rule" and goes on to make a number of points that the Liberals should have been hammering on for months.

So now it's down to the last few days and all the usual zaniness that entails. Jack Layton is begging Liberals and ex-Tories to vote for the NDP, Paul Martin is begging NDPers and ex-Tories to vote for the Liberals, and Buzz Hargrove is begging Quebecers to vote for the Bloc ("we are not making that up"). Nobody in the Conservative Party is begging anybody for anything. They're just politely telling Canadians, over and over again, "we're not scary ... really" (and also: "What is scary is how the Liberals have insidiously taken over the country's entire politico-judicial-bureaucratic apparatus!").

The result is that -- barring Stephen Harper actually eating somebody's baby during the last few days of campaigning -- there will be a Conservative government, quite likely a majority, in power as of Monday.

Not because Stephen Harper is a changed man. Not because the Conservative Party -- which the media stupidly continue to refer to as "Tories" -- is really the Tories. Not because the majority of voters really hold the same "values" (define as you please) or policy desires as the Conservative Party.

But rather because that much-clichéd Canadian desire to kick out the incumbents once they start to smell a little bit raunchy ... is not so much of a cliché.

Update: Mike and Mike point out two more good signs of a campaign-in-trouble, including "I'm-out-I'm-in" Liberal candidate Gilles Savard, who briefly threw his support behind the Conservative (read: other federalist) MP in his riding before backpedalling like crazy, and the confusion over whether the Prime Minister had approved the now-infamous troops-in-our-cities attack ad.

Basically this campaign never had much momentum. I'll never understand why, aside from the lack of basic, consistent, priority-based communications, the Liberal campaign never built on the momentum of its few successful messages (e.g. on child care, the "what if Tommy Douglas & co. had decided to give each Candians a few dollars and called that healthcare" story). Incidentally, it's hilarious how they now poll voters for a reading on momentum.

Posted by anatole at January 19, 2006 10:28 PM

Good summary...the interesting sinking ship in action is Gilles Savard who conceded defeat yesterday and is now trying to unconceed defeat and say nice things about the PM and the campaign. Wonder which Liberal enforcer (maybe a friend of Ken Dryden's) got to him yesterday afternoon?


Posted by: Mike at January 20, 2006 03:52 AM

Well, the Liberal Party is unconceeding him, I think. It's another disappointing part of their campaign: nobody seems to be at the helm. Was the attack ad that talked of soldiers in the streets approved? Some say yes, others say no, all say it publically, tee hee, ha ha.

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