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A man walks past Michael Ignatieff signs at the Liberal Party's election-night rally in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
A man walks past Michael Ignatieff signs at the Liberal Party's election-night rally in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Robert Silver

The Liberal Party: What went wrong and where to next? Add to ...

If I needed to sum up what went wrong with the 2011 Liberal campaign in a sentence, it is a quote that Jane Taber got just before the election started in March. "The campaign is shaping up like 1993, with the GST replaced by corporate taxes, and helicopters replaced by jets,' a senior Ignatieff MP notes." The same MP went on: "Then, like now, the Tories are focused on the Liberal leader, while the Liberals will again promise national childcare, education funding and some sort of infrastructure."

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When I first read that quote, I couldn't help but cringe. 2011 is nothing like 1993 - and it never was going to be. The country is different, our opponents are vastly different, and the Liberal Party's voting coalition as it existed in 1993 is different. There is certainly no mass nostalgia from anyone other than the most partisan of Liberals for 1993. It was, seemingly, only us Liberals that remained the same as we had been almost 20-years earlier.

Of course elections are never won or lost based on one reason and this one is no different. The Liberal Party of Canada have been handed a disastrous result for numerous reasons - some that were new to this campaign, some that were a long-time coming.

First a proviso: I have lots of people who I consider friends who gave thousands of hours of their time to the national and local Liberal campaigns. In lots of ways, they did a wonderful job. This was a professional, slick campaign. While what follows may sound harsh, please be assured that (a) it is not intended as a personal shot against anyone but rather to the effort as a whole; and (b) I only write it because I really do care about the future of the Liberal Party.

We entered the election with a clear strategy to triangulate the NDP on just about every single issue save Afghanistan. Pick an issue, look at the NDP, look at the Liberals, we consistently got as close to them as possible. The strategy was to push the NDP down, polarize the election as a choice between us and the Conservatives and bob's your uncle. At least that was the theory.

For the first two weeks of the campaign, the strategy was partially working. The election was polarizing between the Conservatives and Liberals. The NDP's numbers were staying low. Sure, the Liberals were still double-digit support behind the Conservatives but to the extent the strategy was intended to achieve certain results, there was hope.

And then the debates came, Jack Layton started to gain traction (for a bunch of reasons that will be analyzed to death here and elsewhere) and then the fatal flaws of the strategy quickly crystallized. In short: (a) Layton's NDP have never been and never were going to be the NDP of 1993. We were never going to get them under 15 per cent, never mind the 7 per cent they got in 1993 - to think otherwise was based on hope not reality; (b) You can't fake sincerity. The NDP believed in the positions both parties took, the Liberals less so. The voters got that. Why vote for a pale pink imitation when you can vote for the real thing; (c) It allowed the NDP to jujitsu us aside rather easily by focusing on leadership given that there was little to distinguish our platforms; And (d) once the NDP gained momentum, we had little to go after them over.

But there was of course more at play than simply our short-term strategy. We made the classic mistake that many losing campaigns make, which is to assume the general public hates your opponent - Stephen Harper in this case - as much as the partisans do.

Some will point to leadership. No, we didn't lose just because of Michael Ignatieff. The same way we didn't lose just because of Stéphane Dion or Paul Martin. Ignatieff did fine in the campaign - in some ways admirably - and there is no reason to think that having any other Liberal on the posters, with everything else about the party and the campaign remaining the same, would have led to a different result.

There is no denying that the pre-writ ads against Ignatieff worked. Again. We swore after Dion that we would never let this happen to us again. We did. There were many other lessons from the Dion election and in particular pre-election writ period that were not learned this time around. That is just inexcusable.

Sitting out the fight on cornerstone issues

From a personal perspective, there were two low-points of the Liberal campaign. The first was when the issue of national unity was raised. For at least 40 years, this has been the Liberal Party's bread-and-butter, our raison d'etre. We are the party of national unity. When the issue was brought up, Harper quickly wrapped himself in the flag and took on the role of Captain Canada. He intentionally decided he would own the issue and try to turn it into a strength for him and his party. We said we don't want to discuss national unity. Pass. We wouldn't speak out against extending Bill 101 to federally regulated industries, we wouldn't defend the Clarity Act, wouldn't speak out against NDP nonsense on the Constitution - that was literally verbatim from Brian Mulroney's misguided constitutional adventures. We didn't want to go there, had nothing to say in response. My anger over this decision was not great for my blood pressure.

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