Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lessons Learned

One of the spin-offs of running a good campaign (besides winning) is that everyone holds you up as the shinning example of how to win an election for at least a year or two afterwards. At times this can be rather silly - witnesses the pontificating in 2008 and 2009 about which Canadian leader was most "Obama-esque". But in any good campaign, there are lessons to learn, so it's far from a pointless exercise.

Rob Ford's campaign will certainly become the "it" campaign to study over the next year, by virtue of his win being a) surprising and b) in the centre of the media universe. Ian Davey takes a crack at using Rob Ford to advise Michael Ignatieff:

After flirting with the notion of forcing an election last fall, the Liberals decided to make their electoral success largely dependent on the failure of the Harper government. It was the right decision. Since that time, the Official Opposition has moved between focusing on Conservative failure and striving to outline what kind of government they might form. Despite a plodding performance from the Conservatives and a sluggish economy, polls have remained static for more than a year now. Canadians still see little need for change. Why?


So how does the Ford experience apply in the federal context? Most Canadians would agree that the economy is the most important issue they face. Rightly, the Liberals have attacked the Conservatives for being the country’s largest spending government and accumulating the largest deficit in Canadian history. Moreover, the opposition has wisely questioned the Conservative plan to further deepen corporate tax cuts. Despite these attacks, the Liberals have been unable to get real traction with Canadians because they have been mixing their messages. Rather than keeping the focus on Conservative economic incompetence and the need for change, the Liberals muddied their point by promising a national home care plan which would be funded by the cancellation of corporate tax cuts. By not arguing that cancelling corporate tax cuts in the current environment was about fairness and affordability, the well meaning Liberals appear to be more interested in devising a means to generate money for their program spending than holding the government to account.

[...] Competence and trust, then, become the political fulcrum. In a time when Canadians know money is tight and when they are overwhelmingly concerned about jobs, pensions and economic security, the Liberals would be far wiser to be focusing on a message of change rather than on one of choice. Just ask Rob Ford.

The message - that the Liberals should attack Harper rather than offer alternatives - has been a consistent one of Davey's over the past year and there's certainly some truth to the old adage that "governments defeat themselves".

But I think Davey is off in his analysis of the Ford Phenomenon.

Yes, Ford picked a simple message and attacked relentlessly on it. But this only worked because Ford had credibility (by not spending as a city councilor) and offered alternatives (reduce the size of council, reduce expense accounts, cut wasteful spending). Ford promised to cancel the vehicle registration and land transfer taxes well before the starting gun went off - just because the alternative is simple and based on shaky math, it doesn't mean it's not an alternative. In many ways, Smitherman's anti-waste message was not dramatically different from Ford's, but he was never seen as the best man to cut waste.

Now, let's look at Ignatieff. Unlike Ford, who was trusted on the waste issue, few trust Ignatieff on the economy - look no further than an Ipsos Reid poll from earlier this month that had Harper up 45% to 24% as the best leader to manage the economy in tough times. I'm not saying Ignatieff shouldn't attack Harper's economic record - but it's hard to earn credibility by just pointing out that the other guy sucks. That's what separates Prime Ministers in waiting from idiot bloggers like myself.

The example Davey uses to illustrate his point is the Liberal Family Care plan - his argument being the Liberals would be better served by promising to scrap the corporate tax cut than they would be by promising to scrap the corporate tax cut...and use some of the money saved on programs like Family Care.

Davey has a valid point that too many spending promises will make it harder for Ignatieff to gain credibility on the economy, but to me, Ignatieff gains more by promising to put some of the money saved through the tax freeze into Family Care than he does by simply shoveling it all into deficit reduction.

To me, a corporate tax cut is kind of like Two and a Half Men. Yeah, I don't like it, but does its continued existence on the airwaves really affect me one way or the other? No, not really. But cancel my favourite show in favour of it and I'd be up in arms. I think a lot of voters don't give a damn about corporate tax cuts, but if the election is framed as a choice between billions for big business versus helping Canadians care for a sick loved one, suddenly they begin to feel a lot stronger about the issue. It's only by offering a choice that people can truly evaluate what is being offered. (And yes, I am aware that many people do like Charlie Sheen and/or corporate tax cuts)

As Davey argues, it's important for Liberal attacks on Harper to be clear, concise, and consistent. But for Ignatieff to be seen as a credible alternative, he needs to offer an alternative. It's what Ford did and it's what Ignatieff should do.

UPDATE - And, while we're at it, Kinsella, Delacourt, and Martin all offer advice for the Liberals this morning.

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  • I think you're right, but I'm not conviced that the Party has hit the right balance. I've also found the message to be a bit confusing with deficit fighting versus family care. Perhaps the problem is that our spokespeople try to put both messages into the same speech.

    Instead, I'd like to see the Brisons and Goodales talking only deficit fighting while the Duncans and Trudeaus focus on family care. It's great to have a coordinated platform, but that doesn't mean you have to list the whole thing every single time you speak.

    By Blogger Jason Cherniak, at 8:25 a.m.  

  • That is not "coordination", that is "sending a mixed and confused message"; something the LPC is going a lot of in the last few years.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:35 a.m.  

  • Jason - Good point. One of the strengths of the party in the 90s was that it could send out people like Martin and Manley to talk about financial issues, and then turn to people like Rock and Axworthy for social issues. Designated hitters on different subjects.

    Though, at this point, the focus really needs to be on building up and defining Ignatieff himself.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:51 a.m.  

  • "As Davey argues, it's important for Liberal attacks on Harper to be clear, concise, and consistent."

    It would also be important for the NDP attacks on the Liberals to be clear, concise and consistent. If the NDP would forget about the ridiculous idea of forming government and promote themselves as the only progressive party to vote for, they would do much better. The recent Liberal decision on Afghanistan and the fact that every second Harper has been in power has been compliments of the Liberal party are issues to focus on.
    WHile the Liberals are planning to take on Harper, the NDP should be planning to take on the Liberals.

    By Blogger nuna d. above, at 10:31 a.m.  

  • it's hard to earn credibility by just pointing out that the other guy sucks

    Very good point.

    That's one of the key things the Liberals have been overlooking.

    Plus, since the BQ, NDP and Greens don't need credibility, they can spend their time pointing out that Harper sucks, meaning the "Harper sucks" vote gets pulled in four directions.

    Liberals need the "hey we can actually govern instead of them" vote and for that you need credibility.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 10:42 a.m.  

  • Dan, Jason;

    Your examples point directly to the difference between running from a position of Government versus Opposition. When Rock or Axworthy spoke on social issues, they did so as Ministers responsible for those areas, and the electorate was confident (from the Government's performance at the time) that Ministers Manley and Martin had firm control of the purse strings and IMO presidence in Cabinet. Priorities were pretty clear, and everyone was subservient to the message from da Boss.

    Those roles are far more difficult to differentiate when running from Opposition. Now, even if they are Critics for fiscal or social portfolios, there is no indication who of Goodale, Brison, Trudeau or Duncan will have power and precidence in Government. Therefore, the electorate may give different messages equal weight and priority, and the result is confusion. Fewer messages, clearly prioritized by the Leader and repeated by others, is probably the best way to run from the Opposition benches.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:03 p.m.  

  • Quite useful piece of writing, thank you for this article.

    By Anonymous www.lerida-3d.com, at 4:55 a.m.  

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