The Liberals' woes
What's wrong with the Liberals? Two columns today are attempting to back-date the Liberals' current problems -- stuck in the polls, apparently going nowhere. Lawrence Martin suggests that the electoral/regional forces unleashed in 1993 actually caused lasting damage to the Liberals, while Warren Kinsella suggests that the party just hasn't got its act together since it lost power five years ago. Those two views aren't mutually exclusive, but I thought I'd throw in my two cents too, since I've been covering the party since the late 1980s. Here, in no particular order, are what I believe are some deep, systemic ailments within the Liberal party, circa 2010.
- I've written before about the decline of the "one big thing" in Canadian political/journalistic culture over the past decade. Whether it's in politics or in the media, big, broad institutions are out of fashion. (The military may be an interesting exception.) The Liberals are persisting -- naively, anachronistically, optimistically, some would argue -- in trying to cast themselves as one big thing. They call it the "big red tent," as you may recall. Martin's column usefully reminds us that Chretien's election victories papered over the fissures in this concept, but didn't really fix them.
- Air wars vs. ground wars: If there is one, uniting idea for the Liberals, it's that everyone is a communications strategist. I'm not really joking. Get two or more Liberals in a room and they start discussing what's wrong with the Liberal communications strategy. Everyone's a "senior anonymous Liberal" -- especially and even people who haven't held a party membership card for years or donated to the party. Ignatieff's bus tour this summer was an attempt to persuade Liberals that they had to stop concentrating on the airwaves and get better at their ground game -- raising money, pulling out the vote. The fact that the senior, anonymous Liberals are still on the loose suggests that Ignatieff had limited success.
- Leadership: This is related to the previous two points. Just as Liberals still believe in the one-big-thing idea, they also believe that leaders solve everything. And funnily enough, it's never the leader they currently have. It's the guy they didn't choose the last time. "Buyer regret" should be the official motto of the Liberal party. Though I've written a book about this tendency of the Liberals, I'm quite bored with it now. When I got to Ottawa in 1988, the Liberals wanted to trade in John Turner for Chretien. Then when they got him, Paul Martin seemed like the better choice. And so on. Only the names have changed; the tactics haven't. zzzzzzz.
- Pragmatism: For decades now, Liberals have seen pragmatism as the operating principle of the moderate middle. Harper, however, is turning out to be a better pragmatist; or at least more skilful in avoiding consequences for changing his mind or putting water in his wine. If the next election is about who's better at shifting views to meet circumstances (that would be lame, wouldn't it?) then why wouldn't Canadians choose the one who's already doing it?
- Canadians as spectators: I think a large reason that any party is failing to excite Canadians is because no one's asking them to do anything. All politics seem to revolve around the idea of voters as passive consumers: just sit there, don't do anything, please don't change your mind, and we'll sell you stuff. (I'm working on this whole thing as a larger project, btw.) The old Liberal struggles of the past asked Canadians to make an effort, whether it was bilingualism or the deficit fight of the 1990s. Nobody is asking Canadians to do anything whatsoever right now, and they're obliging with the requested apathy. That problem isn't limited to Liberals, incidentally.
That's probably more than two cents. But that's my contribution to the discussion.