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Liberals’ new message signals lowered expectations

The slogan, as Ontario Liberals gather this weekend in downtown Toronto for their annual general meeting, is "What leadership is."

If they were honest with themselves, and each other, they might go instead with "Lowered expectations."

From a brief, near-euphoric high after Kathleen Wynne took office last year, the governing party has come down a long way. Just how far is apparent both from the way the rookie Premier's pitch to her province has changed, and from what the Liberals are hoping their new message will achieve.

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No longer is Ms. Wynne trying to sell herself as new and exciting, a different sort of politician willing to stake out bold policy positions to advance her values and vision. As laid out in a speech on Thursday night at her party's biggest yearly fundraiser, she is now making a case for remaining in office that is strikingly similar to the argument made in the last provincial election by Dalton McGuinty – the predecessor from whom the new Premier not long ago seemed to seek a clean break.

Not once, not twice, but four times, Ms. Wynne referred to her "safe hands." They are needed, she said, because "it's a turbulent word out there," and Ontario must stick with a "careful, steady balance" that allows slow but steady progress; it cannot afford the "risky, radical approach" of the Progressive Conservatives, or the "risky indecision" of the NDP.

The most obvious casualty of Ms. Wynne's new-found contempt for risks is her first big commitment after replacing Mr. McGuinty. This month, she announced she will not proceed with new gasoline, sales or personal taxes to fund expansion of Ontario's transportation infrastructure – the policy with which she tried to establish her willingness to level with voters about the sacrifices needed to meet their collective needs.

But to listen to Ms. Wynne's speech this week was to detect a subtler climb-down as well.

During the leadership race, and shortly after winning it, Ms. Wynne spoke like the activist she has spent much of her life being – arguing for "social justice" or a "fair society." Those words may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but they were true to her roots.

While she delivered her text competently on Thursday, nobody would believe it came from her heart. From the attacks on the other parties to the touting of a six-point economic plan with repeated references to corporate subsidies to create jobs, it sounded like a checklist of items Ms. Wynne's advisers believe play well with key vote groups – up to and including the pitch for a provincial public-pension plan that has replaced transit taxes as her signature policy.

None of this is meant to appeal to the province as a whole, or even to increase the Liberals' support much.

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For a brief time during her honeymoon, Liberals believed Ms. Wynne's personal popularity alone might return them to a majority. Now, by the accounts of multiple sources familiar with their party's strategy, opinion research and by-election disappointments have helped convince the campaign team there is little chance of winning enough seats in rural or small-town Ontario to achieve that.

The Liberals' hope now is to win another minority by taking most of the Greater Toronto Area and hanging on to a few seats in Ottawa and other cities. Even this seems to be an uphill battle, which is why the Liberals are trying to persuade the New Democrats not to force an election this spring. But the policies and messaging are aimed at clinging to power if that is unavoidable.

Even that as a serious prospect is better than what the Liberals seemed to face during Mr. McGuinty's final months, which is why they'll cut Ms. Wynne slack this weekend. They know it's not her fault that her likeability, still their party's best asset, wasn't enough to overcome the mess she inherited. But they shouldn't be thrilled that what initially set her apart and briefly allowed them to think big is being compromised by survival mode.

Follow me on Twitter: @aradwanski

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