Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Memo to Ignatieff

To: Michael Ignatieff

From: Agitated Voter

Re: How to Win

I don't like you. There, I've said it. You are charismatically challenged; you have an inauthentic demeanour; and I'll never forget your stance on the Iraq war. I suspect that millions of other Canadians feel pretty much the same way about you.

But I plan to vote for you. I want your party to win. I want you to beat Harper. However much I don't like you, I despise Stephen Harper and his Tories.

I worry that you're going to be a Canadian John Kerry. I worry that you're going to allow yourself to be swift-boated because of some misguided effort to occupy the high road. In your recent profile published in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik claims that you're transformed. But if anything, Gopnik's profile shows how little you've changed. You say that you now realize that politics is about theatre (as if journalism and academia somehow are not!), but it's only party theatre: the other part is warfare.

Your summer slumber hurt you. Like millions of other Canadians, I don't care why you allowed yourself to miss an opportunity to attack Harper, but you did. I'm sure there is some complicated PowerPoint presentation somewhere that says that doing nothing for months was the right move. At this point, it doesn't matter.

At this point, you need to attack. Attack, and then attack again. You are not Barack Obama, no matter what your advisors and Annex scuppie friends tell you. You are never going to generate mass popular appeal. The public is never going to love you. On a charisma scale between Dion and Trudeau, you're somewhere in the middle. You need to recognize this for what it is: a tactical advantage over Stephen Harper, who Canadians really do not like. But they know Harper, and the jerk you know can sometimes become the jerk you live with.

So you need to know your limitations. Don't make your campaign autobiographical. Don't make the rhetoric too ambitious. You need to emphasize change. Change is what Canadians desperately want. Not change we can believe in, but change we can tolerate. Most voters want moderate change. They will vote for centrist change. Your slogan should be "Change you can vote for." You are lucky in one instance: Harper has given you a target rich environment. You will be on firm ground when you hammer away at his unpopular positions on wedge issues such as regional development, CBC and the arts, university granting agencies, science funding, or the environment. In harder areas such as the economy, you need to tread very carefully.

You will be on shaky ground if you try to attack Harper's position on Afghanistan or the deficit. In the case of the former, the Liberals are too complicit in the war to have much credibility, and you in particular will have no credibility because of your mistake over Iraq. Just say bland, centrist things, sound worried, and let the news stories do the work for you. Your strategists and professional pollsters may tell you otherwise, but real voters will tell you that this election will not be won or lost on foreign policy. Foreign policy will be, at most, a significant election issue; more likely, it will fade to minor status once the campaign starts.

In the case of the deficit, the public is not as stupid as you might think: they realize that some deficit financing was necessary as the recession took hold and they will tolerate it until the US recovers; the fact that Canada is doing better than most other countries means that Harper's economic record is not his achilles heel. This is one area where you can rely on what's left of the Liberal brand: you need to keep repeating the mantra that the Liberals will be a centrist, smart, moderate government that will manage the economy prudently.

You can bank on one thing: the Tory attack machine will stop at nothing. They will throw just about anything at you in the hope that something will stick. Because of this, you can afford to go negative, too. In fact, if you don't attack Harper, you will be seen as the type of weak, latte-drinking elitist that the Tories want to paint you as. When someone like Tim Powers attacks you for being an arrogant elitist, your staff needs point out the hilarious irony of Powers calling someone else arrogant or elitist.

Powers was not the first to play the arrogance card and he certainly won't be the last. It's something you will have to learn how to deal with, and sooner or later, your campaign will have to devise an effective counter-punch. The most depressing line in Gopnik's profile came after he summarized the smallness of the English Canadian elite. (Such a summary is necessary for Americans; Canadians know full well how small their cultural establishment really is. Only in Canada could John Ralston Saul, a prince of the establishment, safely rail against elitists). After explaining the peculiar form of Canadian elitism, Gopnik observes, "This smallness means that highbrow reputation and political plausibility can be twinned: a brilliant man [sic] from a well-known family who gives a good lecture and gets the notice of a few big people can become a party leader more of less overnight." Gopnik is more right than he realizes: it can indeed be surprisingly easy to become a party leader. Becoming Prime Minister is an entirely different story. It's been more than a generation since Trudeau left politics: over the past quarter century, the only two successful Prime Ministers were Brian Mulroney and Jean Chr├ętien, neither of whom fits Gopnik's template.

Don't make your campaign all about you. I know that you like autobiography. It's clear that you love talking about yourself, your family, your past. But you need to realize that it's not all about you. In fact, if your campaign makes it all about you, the Liberals will lose. One of the many weaknesses of Stephen Harper is that he has a weak cabinet by design. He doesn't want strong ministers. You need to demonstrate that you are a team player who will have a strong cabinet filled with people who do not believe in creationism. (You would do well to spend more time speaking with Chr├ętien and less time chatting up writers for American magazines).

Keep in mind that this election will be about retail politics. It will be about agitated voters frustrated with the status quo; voters who tell pollsters that they support Harper, even though they don't like him; voters who don't trust Layton and the NDP; voters who worry about the Bloc. These voters liked Harper's Australian-style, retail-politics tax cuts; but they are no Barry Goldwaters. They represent the big, fat, mushy middle, filled with people like myself who want to be persuaded that there is a genuine alternative to Harper.

You need to focus on local operations, volunteer organization, constituency offices, and getting the Liberal vote out. Many people forget that Obama's success was due far more to his campaign discipline, organizational prowess, and local networking than his masterful rhetoric or debating skills. Many people also forget that while Obama himself eschewed nasty attacks on Hilary Clinton and then John McCain, his supporters and surrogates never hesitated to exploit their opponents' weaknesses.

You need to stop talking like a cosmopolitan. Talking about Isaiah Berlin in interviews is fine as it goes, but often the reader gets the scary impression that you genuinely believe that this election will be an existential struggle between variants of liberalism, between the forces of individualism and the imperatives of collective rights. If you pander too much to Quebec nationalism, you will lose, no matter how intellectually complicated your rationalization may be.

Please keep in mind the fate of the ill-fated Decembrist coalition. Please keep in mind that more than anything else, your smart avoidance of the Decembrists was what got you the leadership in the first place. Do not forget how the Tories pounced on the so-called pact with the separatists. Do not think that you can somehow semantically skate around separatism. "So-called" doesn't matter in elections.

Stop talking about the Balkan civil war as if it was your war. You need to stop using it as an intellectual touchstone. If you tell Canadian voters that your position on nationalism was forged by Blood and Belonging, you will lose. If you tell Canadian voters that, as a result of the Yugoslavian tragedy, "I got out of my system a certain kind of cosmopolitism that's highly individualistic," you will lose. Talking like that is precisely what cosmopolitans do. Talking about your self-reinvention, your personal transformations, or how you've decided to try on a new brand of cosmopolitanism will not get you elected.

Keep in mind that you are not, and will never be, Trudeau. Keep in mind that he had more charisma in his left arm than you have in your entire body. Keep in mind that he was smart enough to know how to talk smart. Keep in mind that whatever else, he projected authenticity -- you knew who he was, even if you didn't like him -- and, because of that, he gained respect. Keep in mind that Trudeaumania was never as deep or as wide as Liberals make it out to be. Keep in mind past Liberal minority governments, past defeats, past missteps. Keep in mind that unlike Trudeau, you face an opponent who is as smart as you. Keep in mind that unlike Trudeau, you face a Tory attack machine that makes Tim Powers look positively refined.

I want to vote for you. I really do. And millions of other Canadians want to, too. They want the noise and uncertainty of minority government to go away. They want to push the spectacle of last year out of their collective memory, and they want to pretend that the whole prorogation soap opera never happened. You can help them do that. You may have supported the Iraq war, but you never became a fully committed Decembrist. Your relatively clean slate is one of your best friends in the next election. The other is Stephen Harper.

Keep in mind that however low you stoop, he will stoop lower. This does not mean that you should not jump into the mosh pit of political mud-slinging. Far from it. It means that because of their nastiness, you can afford to attack. It means that you are in the fortunate position of facing a nasty politician who has tried repeatedly, and failed repeatedly, to get Canadians to give him a majority. You may not have a lot of personal charisma, but he has far less.

You need to pass the elevator test, i.e., the leader with whom the voters, if given the choice, would prefer to ride the elevator. Voters like to talk more about how politicians are jerks than about the legacy of Isaiah Berlin. And while they tell pollsters that they don't like negative campaigns, the truth is that politicians use attack ads because they work. Remember what Machiavelli said about fear and love.

Trust me on this. Just because voters place such a high premium on perceptions of strength and authenticity does not mean that they are stupid (nor does it mean that all ordinary Canadians drink double-doubles, by the way), but it does mean that they can spot a phony or a bully a mile away. You're facing a bully in the next election; for the sake of the electorate, please leave the role of the phony to Jack Layton.

Good luck. And stop giving interviews to the New Yorker.

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