Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Worrying Mentalities

Lawrence Martin picks up on a theme that I've been arguing of late. What I found somewhat surprising were the comments coming from "party central". First, the opinion:
“The plan,” a senior Ignatieff strategist said yesterday, “is steady as she goes.”

If there is worry among the rank and file about lack of policy, there isn't at party central. “The game is not policy, it's politics,” the adviser bluntly observed. He noted how St├ęphane Dion brought out his Green Shift plan well before an election. Look what happened, he said. By the time the campaign rolled around, the Conservatives had undermined it. “You don't draw a target on yourself. Sure there are many in the party who are upset. I can live with it. We started in January with a plan - and we haven't moved off it.”

But if the Liberals don't change tack now, if they continue to drift, what position will they be in to go to the polls at that time? They would have only a short five-week campaign to turn things around. No big deal, said Liberals at party central. “In politics, things change real fast.”

Yesterday, I spoke about being "nimble", constantly adapting to the forever changing political terrain. With that agility in mind, the "steady as she goes", same strategy we've had since January mentality, appears rigid and dangerous. The final quote about things changing fast in politics is the one to grasp, and it betrays the earlier stay the course mentality. Things are changing, as predicted the government is already starting to crow about the economy, we even see the Bank of Canada declaring the recession over. This ain't January, it ain't even June, this is the right now, projecting forward.

Please, please, don't use Dion and the carbon tax as your reference point to justify keeping your head down. Those were desperate times, which lead to an admitted "hail mary" policy position. The Liberal Party of last year bears no resemblence to our current circumstance, no matter your measure. Using the Dion example as representative is so full of holes I frankly shutter that it's now become the "not to do" template. Ditto for anybody using John Tory, because that speaks more to controversial positions, rather than any debate about putting out substance. Nobody is suggesting Ignatieff come out with some "radical" proposal that is risky by nature.

What is the greatest challenge for the Liberal Party? Ask the pollsters, and I guarantee you they will say a lack of definition, a sense amongst voters that they don't where the party stands. Taken further, that reality is a DRAG on our popularity, it is part of the equation that explains why we see this constant see saw in the polls. People move to the Liberals when they become disenchanted with the Conservatives, other parties, but we don't DRAW them. Big, big difference and one that needs to be considered.

It isn't "risky" to address your chief liabilities, it's called "shrewd". That's politics, as far as my history reads. What liability did Harper and the Conservatives address that helped him gain power? The overwhelming sense that he was a scary guy, a ideological party that would take Canada in a radical direction. The Conservatives confronted this perception by manipulating Harper's image, by portraying him as a moderate, armed with mostly centrist ideas. The Conservatives confronted their chief obstacle to forming government, that's what you do. With that in mind, any sense amongst Liberals that you can just keep to the script- when you see more and more evidence that lack of definition is your achilles heel- isn't sound strategy it's a stubborn refusal to adapt accordingly.

The "game is not policy, it's politics" might be true, but it should be about policy when it's a political necessity. It's good politics for the Liberals to put forth a vision for Canada, with a certain boldness that captures people's imagination. It's good politics when you address your weak spots, perceptions which are holding you back and in turn giving your opponent more reason for optimism than they deserve. Don't get cozy with outdated assumptions and completely imperfect analogies, we're in for the fight of our lives and nothing is coming our way by default.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll try a hat at, oh I don't know. let's call it the most obvious, "political" move that would allow details of policies to wait until the election but could be laying the groundwork for an eventual election.

Hammer every single time the Conservatives fail to act as a responsible government. During the "dead period" of the past few weeks there have been at least 3 examples of the Conservatives fumbling and stumbling (yet pleasing - or at least not offending - their base).

Where is the Liberal party's statement demanding the conservatives at least spell out the "objective" criteria they are using to dole out money to the Marquee Tourism Program, instead allowing Clement to shift his rationale every moment including "considerations" that are not part of the mandate of the program?

Where is the Liberal party's statement expressing alarm at the Harper government's non-existent efforts to confront the lies and distortions being told about the Canadian health care system during the US Healthcare debate?

Where is the Liberal party's statement demanding a wider investigation into the leak of jobs information in advance of the official release?

Where is the Liberal party's statement chastising Gary Goodyear for not revealing the "scratch my back" arrangement with his wife's now-bankrupt former employer?

Those are examples from the past month.

If the strategy is steady as she goes, no one needs to say anything, then all they are allowing the Harper government and their supporters to do is coast through it all, simply feeding the press with "Where's Iggy?" innuendo and columns like the one today.

It's a variation on yesterday's discussion. Fill the gap or it will be filled for you.

Sitting on your hands is not a strategy. Well, it may be, but for the other guy - not for your team.

Steve V said...

"Fill the gap or it will be filled for you."

Couldn't agree me.

Just to be clear, I'm not advocating a platform release prior to a campaign, more like certain targetted ideas that tell Canadians where we would take the country.

If you want a low risk policy, you could put Ignatieff on a plane to one of Canada's poorest aborginal reserves. I've heard him muse about the first nations issues, but he could easily fill that space and make himself a sort of champion for tackling long entrenched problems. I don't think that is controversial, but I do think something beyond simple platitudes, put out into the open, would be the type of thing that would help give some identification to the party. To be credible though, you need to come to the table with detail, the usual fluff is treated as such, yawns abound.

Koby said...

As I have said time and time again, the Liberals need to renew their brand. If nothing else it might help them establish what political center is. With the NDP having decided that it too wanted to stand for nothing, it is the Conservatives that define what is center of Canadian politics. The new center is somewhere "left" of the Reform policies that sadly came to define Canadian politics in the 1990s. The Conservatives have moved to "the center" by abandoning some of them. Of course, pace Andrew Coyne, that they have abandoned some of the populist Reform party tenor is not proof of anything in most cases.

Quixotique said...

"The "game is not policy, it's politics" is the most offensive line in the article both to Canadians and to partisan Liberals.

Firstly, Canadians are sick of the "game" and their increasing cynicism and decreasing turnout are evidence of that.

Secondly, such a statement is hardly indicative of "doing politics differently" as the Leader has astutely recognized as a key to re-engaging the public (and party members). Perhaps he forgot to remind his strategists of this position?

And finally, keeping even your own party in the dark about your policy directions and priorities makes it pretty darned difficult to market them in an articulate way at the doors in the next election.

Koby said...

"If you want a low risk policy, you could put Ignatieff on a plane to one of Canada's poorest aborginal reserves."

The problem with the Liberal party in a nutshell is just that. Attempts to placate first Quebecers and now native Canadians have ruined the party. There is no room for group rights in a true liberal party.

On a practical level, the social problems common on many isolated reserves are not going to be solved. The reserves are economically unviable and social problems a natural consquence of the communities's unviability . By keeping them afloat, the government is condemning future generations to be born into poverty.

Anonymous said...

Canadians are sick of the game? If that were true negative ads wouldn't work and Harper wouldn't get away with what he does.

Canadians are stupid.

Steve V said...

"Canadians are sick of the game?"

Absymal voter turnout would suggest they are.

Anonymous said...

"Those were desperate times, which lead to an admitted "hail mary" policy position."

Mind you, the party is weaker in Parliament now, then during Dion's admnistarion. Was campaigning on policy, Dion's supposed strength?

"What is the greatest challenge for the Liberal Party?"

The party lost 2 million voters since Chretien took power in 1993. Also voter apathy as fewer Canadians vote.

“The game is not policy, it's politics,”

When the Liberals rejected Michael Ignatieff in 2006, they decided that a cosmopolitan intellectual with an iconic following was not what the party needed. In 2009, the party reluctantly embraced him and the same problem manifests itself. A man who deals with abstracts and a grand vision of Canada. If the Grits want policy to defeat Harper, then might as well support Dion against all leadership challengers.

Steve V said...


Maybe weaker in terms of number of MP's, but nothing else. Even Liberals admit that the green shift was an act of desperation to resurrect Dion. We're simply not in that position right now, I see no resemblance. As aside, as far as policy goes, it helps if you have a messenger to sell it or make it believable. We didn't, not even close.

JimmE said...

I take issue with your premise, we need to be a little in the weeds right now, and be ready for the autumn; or the spring. I actually think the spring is a better time to go to the polls for many reasons. The one caveat is a Tory leadership change.

I'm enough of a Geezer to remember a fella, (H M just honoured his-self in fact) who while opposition leader in the run-up to a federal election told his "Nervous Nellies" to relax (he may have actually said take a Vallium). We need to do the same thing right now. Even if we attempt to go to the polls in the fall, we should make noises that we want to make things work. That way if we have reason to go, we can make the case that we did what we could to make things work but those bad bad tories just don't play well with others.

Steve V said...

I agree on "making things work". However, I don't think we suffered from an identity crisis back then like we do now, nor was the same level of cyncism present for the party brand. I take issue with the premise that you can just ramp it up during a campaign, without some preamble prior to set the stage. That's a risky recipe, and I'd also add that Conservatives are nowhere near as unpopular now as they were during Chretien's run. As a matter of fact, I don't like using any past analogies, based on old dynamics, to project present strategies. Every situation brings its own unique challenges, ours now is a question of definition and it shows itself in striking fashion, whenever people are asked. Again, not a platform release, but something more than merely criticizing the government, reacting to what they do or don't do.

ottlib said...

Forgive me Steve but a couple, three posts ago you were commenting on the chattering classes and the "dog days of summer". Your argument was they could be ignored.

Now you are actually agreeing with one of them just days later.

I agree that Mr. Martin is taking a different tack than the others but it is really just the same thing. He is trying to fill column inches. I find when he has a relevant and happening topic to write about he can be incisive and insightful. However, when there is no great issue and he has to find something else to write about his efforts are almost invariably weak. This is one of those instances.

Really, he has been observing politics long enough to know that in politics, as in comedy, timing is everything.

Introducing policy or even broad policy ideas during this period in the calendar is useless at best, counterproductive at worst. The only people paying attention are your political opponents and that is so they can come up with a counter to your proposal.

Hell, Mr. Ignatieff gave a great speech in London a few weeks ago and it went totally unnoticed by virtually everybody in this country. A few of us political junkies noticed but that was about it.

Last year, Mr. Dion spent the entire summer trying to defend the Green Shift and that could have been a contributing factor to their seeming lack of preparedness when Mr. Harper called the election. This summer, they are spending more time preparing for a fall election and not giving their main political opponents a target.

Of course, that does not stop the chattering class from asking silly questions but that is what they do. They report news and if it does not exist then they make it up.

Just like the fact Canadians really do not care about politics right now they really do not care about what our political leaders are doing either. The only way they will notice is if Liberals begin to buy into the narrative some in the media are peddling. And I would think that after the last three years they would have learned not to do that anymore.

ottlib said...


The danger with the Liberals commenting on everything is you would reduce them to mere partisan issues.

The rancid meat report, the Nortel fiasco, the gay pride funding, and other issues are issues that can erode support for the Conservatives as they cut across partisan lines.

However, as soon as the Liberals comment on them they just become another partisan issue and that partisanship becomes the topic of conversation drowning out the really important and potentially damaging aspects of each issue.

That is the reason for the adage about not interfering when your political opponent is defeating itself. Really, the Conservatives have had a lousy month without any assistance from the Liberals so let them continue.

All that being said, I certainly hope that the Liberals are taking note and buying the rights to some of the footage and copy from the various news outlets. Some of this stuff would be golden in ads during the next election.

Koby said...

The Liberals have lost 5% in the polls since they punted away the EI issue the way they punted away the Afghan issue. There is no evidence whatsoever that they can win a workable minority by continuing to be the Seinfeld party. The Liberals need to stand for something beyond pandering to various groups.

Anonymous said...

I agree you have a point, ottlib, truly.

I think more than anything I was just struck by the fact that a niche did develop, and the media were filling it with innuendo and musings when their were plenty of items on which they could be commenting. I know that speaks more to them than anything the Liberals might do. Was simply hoping the party could work to 1) remove the "where's Iggy?" syndrome (by just saying what is going on in general terms) and 2) nudge the media in the direction of some of these other items.

Wishful thinking, I know ;)

Steve V said...

"Forgive me Steve but a couple, three posts ago you were commenting on the chattering classes and the "dog days of summer". Your argument was they could be ignored."

Forgive me for the apples and oranges tract you've taken here. If you've been paying attention I've been on the "bold" thing for awhile now, and that has nothing to do with whether Ignatieff is flipping burgers or not. I'm surprised you can't see the difference.

As an aside, Ignatieff is out front today and from what I hear his itineray will be quite packed the rest of the summer.

sjw said...

I never know if I should feel relieved or agitated when ottlib shows up doing his Bobby McFerrin 'don't worry be happy' routine. All I can say is I hope he's right. Sometimes I think if this goes on much longer Harper can get that majority he covets so dearly.

ottlib said...

True enough Steve but again timing is everything.

There really is no point in Mr. Ignatieff or the Liberals to be overly bold at this point because no one will notice. Well except for we folks who care about politics all of the time.

Nothing would be accomplished accept to tip their hand to their political opponents, whom you might have noticed have no compunction about twisting the positions of their opponents for political gain.

Gayle said...

I tend to agree with ottlib. For the first 3 weeks of July I barely acknowledged politics - and as my husband says - I am pretty obsessed.

It is just that I had some holidays, and spent some time with friends, and realized that I really did not care that much.

So if someone as obsessed as I wants to take a break, I think you can expect normal people really are not paying that much attention.

Ramp it up over August, with most of the activity coming in the latter part of the month and into September.

Anonymous said...


I think we're related in some fashion ;), or at least have the same biorhythm chart (does anyone remember those ;).

That describes my entire mood, so I have to admit my sudden "they should do something" fear is somewhat related to the fact that I started to take notice again after reeling in the obsession a bit for a few weeks ;).

Steve V said...

Just to be clear, I'm not worried in the least that Ignatieff hasn't had a high profile in July, although I do think he does need to ramp it up heading into the fall session. That debate is entirely seperate from the desire to see us come up with some substantive definition, and we would be wise to get the preamble established prior to an election. I find much of this conversation to be talking past each other.

Gayle said...

I agree with you there Steve - though I also understand the whole "let Harper defeat himself" thing too.

At some point before an election the LPC are going to have to come out with some broad policy statements. What is important is that details are available by the time the election campaign is up and running.

Steve V said...

I don't disagree with "government's defeat themselves", but I also don't think there's a large "kick the bums out" mentality with the electorate just yet. We will need dissatisfaction with Harper, coupled with the draw of our policies to do the trick methinks.