Neck & Neck: Part 4 – Harper’s Revival and the Dismantling of the Left

necknneckver3When news of Harper’s appointment of a new Conservative campaign manager, the electoral Grand-Wizard Lynton Crosby, first broke, it provoked a knowing and uneasy rumble from opposition pundits.

 Already, just little over three weeks after his appointment, the genius of the Conservative’s message and strategy shift has become unsettlingly clear.

The early weeks of this long campaign were effectively, if not intentionally, conceded to the opposition. Middle class frustration with Harper’s government, following a difficult final year in government, was thoroughly vented.

We were told repeatedly of his poor economic record, and the alleged corruption in his government was put on public display by the trial of Mike Duffy. Furthermore, to complete the assassination of Harper’s brand, the callousness of his public image, his tragic flaw, was exploited in response to the refugee crisis.

At the end of this first month, Harper looked not only incompetent and untrustworthy, but even distasteful as a choice for Prime Minister; a poor manager for Canada, not only in terms of his track record but also due to the tarnishing effect he’s had on Canada’s international brand too.

With Crosby’s appointment, the beginning of September there represent an expected shift into the second phase of the election, in which the big questions of domestic worthiness gave way to issues of national identity.

The NDP, having excelled as the preferred domestic alternative in the first four weeks, have been unsuited to this, not least because their party is without an international or even federal legacy. We are reasonable to question what role a government would play in a federal or international arena when it has fielded few ambassadors and no foreign or prime ministers in its history.

By contrast, the Liberals have looked increasingly governmental. Here the personal brand of Trudeau is actually an asset rather than a liability. More importantly, the Liberals’ long record of internationalism appeals to both the left flank, who the NDP are at risk of losing, and wistful Red Tories, who lost their natural party with the absorption of the Progressive Conservatives (PC) into Harper’s Alliance.

The Liberals can, and have pointed to their legacy as the “natural governing party” during the heydays of Canadian peacekeeping and growing multiculturalism. Trudeau is the direct descendant of our most iconic federalist and the successor of Chrétien, who rejected the would-be disastrous implications of joining an Iraq war.

Positionally, he is opposite to Mulcair, who advocates provincial autonomy on health care and the environment and who will weaken requirements for Quebec’s succession. 

But Trudeau is also stands opposed to Harper, who’s embrace and advocacy of hawkish intervention in Libya and Syria (and formerly, even Iraq) is reminiscent of the second Gulf War rhetoric.

It does not much matter if Trudeau himself supported or rejected these policies. As an image, which he employed in Monday’s Munk Debate on foreign policy, it is a strong one.

It seems that due to the first strong, emotional push of the Liberal campaign, which developed in response to the refugee crisis, the Conservatives saw their opening. 

By focusing on actual policy, the Liberals made Harper’s appeals to security and the “economy first” status quo look silly (or at least overly conservative). But conceding the intellectual high-ground by abandoning real policy was a big mistake by the Liberals.

Since then, Crosby’s Conservative campaign has strategically invoked a number of powerful, emotional debates timed and constructed to truly sucker-punch opposition support. The most obvious of these is the niqab debate, a topic which is unlikely to move an English-Canadian vote but speaks directly to Quebec.

Mulcair’s position against a ban at citizenship ceremonies has cost him first in the polls, and most of his chance at government. Unable to compromise for fear of angering entrenched English Canadian small-l liberals, Mulcair created an invaluable opening for the Bloc and the Conservatives to steal seats in Quebec, the very bedrock of their campaign for government. Mulcair needs strong numbers in Quebec to challenge for seats when so few in English Canada are invulnerable to vote-splitting.

The Liberals, by contrast, were already disliked in Quebec for their abysmal provincial history and strong federalist policies. They had little to lose from a debate on the niqab, when their position will appeal to most English Canadian moderates. But Crosby’s second card was a wedge issue that separated moderates from moderates, cutting off the Trudeau from his critical Red Tory and old-PC support.

Revoking Toronto 18 terrorist-plotter Zakaria Amara’s citizenship was such an obviously political ploy that Conservative statements to the contrary were almost universally derided and ignored. But elections, Crosby has proven, are not won by subtlety.

Trudeau held resolutely to the longstanding Canadian ethos that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” in Monday’s debate. And this will appeal to the softer, leftist edge of his party, eating into NDP support in English Canada. This plays into Crosby’s hands — the Leftist snake is eating its own tail as the vote will further split.

But as the Liberals are temporarily bolstered into second by this shift, they are also losing the battle for potential Conservative voters, who feel strongly, like the Quebecois, that Canadian citizenship is contingent on the acceptance of clearly established values.

The world has changed, these voters say. And in this new world, Harper’s appeals to screen refugees, deport terrorists, and continue bombing Islamist regions seem a more than reasonable price for Canada’s safety from an ephemeral, global, cultural threat. Voters will be more inclined to forgive his Islamophobic foray in Quebec as an ideological extension of otherwise strong policies.

Crosby has thus orchestrated what may have been inevitable but seemed far from it back in August — the self-destruction of the Canadian left. The risk is that enough small-l liberals — Conservative, NDP, and Liberal voters alike — identify with Trudeau’s cultural vision to launch the party ahead of the Conservatives on October 19th.

But Crosby’s own math will tell him — there are enough potential Conservative voters in most key ridings to win that coveted 35% in a tight three-way race. And with Quebec and Ontario shifting, the signs portend we’ll wake up to Harper’s triumphant Canada on October 20th.

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