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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Appearing decisive is a poor rationale for the Liberals Add to ...

The ghosts of past failures often influence political actors.

The ghosts lay their hands upon a party leader, or an entire party, bidding them to learn lessons, often the wrong ones, while guiding them to fresh errors.

As in, the ghost's hands have laid themselves upon Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and his advisers, who, fearful of being perceived as weak and indecisive as predecessor Stéphane Dion, have plunged the party and the country into an election they cannot win.

They might have convinced themselves that victory might be at hand if absolutely everything broke their way, in which case they have been gripped by a severe case of self-delusion.

In part, the decision had to do with some adolescent hyper-partisanship that clouded the Liberals' intelligent judgment, and perhaps with some lingering but deep-seated perception of themselves as the natural governing party.

The decision also had to do with Mr. Dion's ghost - more than any rational calculation of self-interest, let alone the country's interests, which certainly do not lie in another election just a year after the previous one.

Seldom, if ever, do voters tell pollsters that they welcome an election. But when 80 per cent of them think it's a bad idea, it is a foolhardy party that flies into those winds, which is of course what the Liberals have done. With predictable initial results: a slight fall in public polls.

Polls, of course, are the most overreported aspect of politics. They drive far too much of what passes for discussion, and they mesmerize political elites. It is, rather, to the underlying factors of politics that observers should look for explanations and anticipations. None of these is running in the Liberals' favour.

Past experience suggests, for example, that opposition parties do not win elections so much as governments lose them. And they lose elections for one (or more) of four broad reasons or perceptions: corruption, incompetence, time for a change, or major issues on which the government is far out of step with public opinion.

No one can accuse the Conservatives of corruption. Incompetence is often in the eye of the beholder. People who dislike the Prime Minister and his party will think both are incompetent, but those who are more objective do not generally see the government as incompetent. Wrong-headed, maybe, but not grossly incompetent, at least not in the past six months.

Time for a change? After fewer than four years in office? Again, people who dislike the government will think that one day has been too many for the Conservatives in office. For the rest, the notion that it's "time for a change" because the government has been in office for 3 1/2 years is risible.

Out of step with public opinion? Maybe, but the Liberals voted for the Conservatives' stimulus budget. All they can say critically of the budget rollout is that the money didn't flow fast enough - a charge of dubious validity belied, at least in the perceptions of politics, by the showering of money on every corner of Canada by Stephen Harper and his ministers.

The announcement machine never stops - Saskatoon, yesterday. The strategy is crass, since the announcements are photo-op repeats of things in the budget. It is largely useless, since most of the money will be spent long after the recession. But how can the steady rain of announcements and photo-ops not do some political good?

So, if the Liberals cannot win because the government is beating itself, can they win by offering something more appealing?

"We can do better," appears to be the emerging Liberal slogan, but in which way? This is a question the Liberals are not yet ready to answer, so that having launched a pre-election, they now must say "wait" before they put anything enticing in the political window.

Again, the ghosts of elections past shape strategy, since the Liberals remember Mr. Dion's carbon tax promise, and how it was systematically bent out of recognizable shape by the Conservative attack machine. Better to offer nothing than do a Dion.

Mr. Ignatieff evidently felt himself pushed to appear decisive by provoking an election, when none of the usual conditions for an opposition victory is objectively present.

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