This weekend looks like the last opportunity for the Liberals to choose an off ramp and avoid the election they are speeding towards. Some reflection on that option is probably still a good idea. Since it's not my burden to choose, here are some thoughts on the case for standing down. Tomorrow, the case for pressing on.
While many will say that standing down now carries too much risk to Michael Ignatieff's credibility, the Liberals need to weigh that risk against the risk of a failed election campaign, one that Canadians didn't want but the Liberals felt impelled to trigger.
A loss in that scenario would be bad for Mr. Ignatieff, bad for the Liberal Party, and the pain will last a while. Standing down poses risks to Mr. Ignatieff's reputation personally, but these are risks that are overstated in the Ottawa cocoon, and would dissipate pretty quickly in any event.
The reasons for reconsidering are not only the obvious ones: softening Liberal support and firming Conservative support. The questions Liberals may want to ask themselves lie in these three areas:
1. Roughly two out of three voters aren't inclined to support Mr. Harper, but most of them are unconvinced that an election is a good idea right now. I've tested enough political ads over the years and I've no doubt that "we can do better" tested okay, but does it really get people "fired up" and "ready to go"? Is it a strong enough battle cry?
2. Mr. Ignatieff has not yet been required to make the hard decisions faced by a prime minister, is leading the opposition during a terrible economic slump and is shedding affection. These polls are the political equivalent of a rapid heartbeat and a shortness of breath: not to be taken lightly, a signal of the need for improved fitness. Mr. Ignatieff has the potential to be a highly effective and persuasive political communicator, but has he reached that potential yet? Time can be his friend as he sharpens his skills; will going now make it his foe?
3. The argument for replacing the government ("we can do better") is plausible but perhaps a bit tepid. To add some pop, the "doing better" theme needs a handful of icons, things that are crystal clear and endlessly repeated, such as the biggest recorded deficit in Canadian history, a strong commitment to high-speed rail, a plan to help rebuild our manufacturing capacity and manage the looming currency challenge facing our exports, etc. There was nothing in Mr. Ignatieff's launch ad that would turn people off, but was there enough that would electrify them about the brave new world the Liberals would construct?
The Liberal advertising launched this week does a couple of things remarkably well. The level of partisanship is low, meaning the tone has a good chance of appealing to women and younger voters. Moreover, the pitch is upside and optimism, to a market that is starved for a convincing story of better days ahead. However, while Liberal candidates might take comfort in the direction the party and leadership is headed in, some final reflection on postponing this contest, as ungainly as standing down might seem, may be judicious.
Tomorrow, the hawkish perspective.