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Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy
Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Flanagan and Duffy

Election Ringside, April 18: Crash landing on health care? Add to ...

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: John Duffy Sent: Monday, April 18, 10:12 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

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A wise man once told me that an incumbent government's campaign is a "barely controlled crash-landing." Think of landing a fighter plane (no, not that one) on an aircraft carrier. The object is to start well aloft - as incumbents usually do - negotiate all the buffeting that the opposition, the media and a tuned-in public can throw at you, and bring the craft onto the flight deck for a safe landing.

Viewed through this metaphoric lens, Campaign 2011 appears at last to be getting interesting. Why? Because with two weeks to go, several cross-winds have begun whipping around the flight deck.

The most obvious is the NDP surge. Jack Layton's career-high performance in both of the televised debates - the French one in particular - has buoyed a heretofore fading NDP campaign. Polls are showing NDP advances in key regions, with the potential for New Democrats to take seats from both Liberal and Conservative incumbents.

The second cross wind is Michael Ignatieff. Last week, I said he needed to find the language to connect his argument to an audience. He may be finding it, as with this impassioned, early-Diefenbaker-style plea.

The third deck-level gust is health care. New NDP and Liberal paid advertising on the issue, plus Ontario Premier McGuinty's intervention last Friday, has catapulted health care into the campaign narrative. That's never a good conversation for Conservatives, especially in the last weeks of a campaign.

Finally, the aircraft carrier itself may be on heavying seas. A distinct possibility exists of enhanced electoral engagement by young people driven by social media. This could be a game-changer.

Now, it's easy to get breathless about this social-media politics stuff. And it's hard to be certain of how much effect, if any, these dynamics will have. Canada's political apparatus insufficiently tracks and reports social media activity. (I suspect the Tories keep close tabs; reporting is not exactly their strong suit.) But if this social-media uprising stuff is really happening, it could be a major rogue wave at the wrong moment for Mr. Harper's efforts to effect a smooth landing.

Tom, how do you think it all looks from the frontrunning campaign's cockpit?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, April 18, 2011, 10:43 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

John, I would say things look pretty good right now for the Conservatives. In the three polls released this morning, the Conservatives are ahead by 10 in Nanos, 11 in Angus Reid, and 12 in Leger. That's not necessarily a majority, but it's getting pretty close.

The Liberals' new omnibus negative ad doesn't worry me because it's way over the top. I would be more concerned about the Liberals' health-care attack ad. There's no point arguing about the inaccuracies in it; that doesn't work in a campaign. Rather, I would prepare a response ad to demolish its credibility: " The Liberals say they're interested in health care. Let's look at the Liberal record. When Jean Chrétien was in power, he cut grants for health care. Paul Martin got his health care at a private clinic. For most of his life, Michael Ignatieff got his health care outside Canada. Stephen Harper is here for your health care in Canada."

From: John Duffy Sent: Monday, April 18, 12:08 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Good ad, Tom. Proves my theory that inside every strategy guy beats the heart of an advertising copy writer.

I can see where you're going on this, and wouldn't be surprised to see that kind of schoolyard pushback. Mr. Harper has left some markers to that effect here and there on the campaign trail, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them touched upon in advertising.

I think something is required from the Conservatives. Why? Because I agree with the run of analysis that suggests that whatever the lead may be, Mr. Harper's majority is drawing farther, not nearer.

An implicit part of the "controlled crash" theory of a government's re-election campaign is the fact that it is rare for an incumbent government to expand its support from one election to the next. Mr Harper's seat count grew from 2006 to 2008, but only because Liberal votes collapsed much more than Conservatives'. I continue to believe that opposition mobilization, rather than government persuasion, will prove the motor of this election.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, April 18, 2011, 12:28 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

I don't know whether a Conservative majority can happen or not. We're still too far away. If the Conservatives don't get a majority, then the question will be whether the number of seats they get is sufficient to deter the other parties from trying to defeat them in the House and take over the government. I imagine we'll debate that at length closer to e-day.

I wonder if anyone in the media will ask Mr. Ignatieff where he gets his health care now. He taught at Harvard for five years, where he would have had access to some of the best doctors in the world, paid for by the private health insurance that he must have had as an employee benefit. Did he leave all that behind for a Canadian GP paid by OHIP?

I suppose I'm hypocritical on this. If I had the money, I'd go to a private clinic, too. I think the system should be changed so that we can all have access to private care. But if a political leader is going to play the demagogue about health care, he should be standing in line along with the rest of the sweaty masses. If that's the case with Mr. Ignatieff, my regard for him, which (politics aside!) is already high, will go even higher.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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