Friday, September 05, 2008

Welcome to 2004

I am always amazed at how history repeats itself in politics. It must be because no politician has had an original thought on how to win elections since the creation of representative democracy.

In 2004 Paul Martin was riding high in the polls, with personal leadership ratings 25 points higher than Stephen Harper and his party in the low 40% range while the Conservatives were around 15 points back. Every newspaper in the country was stating without reservation that Mr. Martin would weather the sponsorship scandal storm and win a majority government. The main reason of course was those polling numbers and the fact the media firmly believed that Mr. Harper would never be able to beat Mr. Martin and the Big Red Machine.

The Liberals apparently believed this hype themselves because their election strategy for the 2004 campaign was to highlight the superior leadership qualities of Paul Martin compared to Mr. Harper.

The first part of that strategy was to release a series of negative attack ads that were directed straight at Mr. Harper. No talk of policy just an attempt to paint Mr. Harper as a dogmatic, neo-conservative "Alberta Firewall" ideologue who could not be trusted with power. The next part of the strategy was to release a series of positive ads depicting Mr. Martin as the steady hand and friendly everyman. The final part of the strategy was to trash Mr. Harper at every turn during the actual campaign. The Liberal Red Book that year was very thin as the Party did not really develop much of an election platform.

Does all of this sound familier?

We all know what happened next. By the final weekend of the election the Liberals and the Conservatives were statistically tied in the polls with the Liberals having lost almost 10 points of support, with most of that going to the Conservatives and the rest going to the NDP and the Bloc. They made a slight recovery in the final weekend and their net loss was only 7 points with a result being a minority government.

Of course there are differences. Mr. Harper will not have the mother of all political scandals hanging over his head. He will have a few, including one where video of the RCMP raiding Conservative Party Headquarters was taken by Liberal Party cameramen, so we could be seeing that video again in the next few weeks. However, they are small compared to what Mr. Martin had to deal with.

Then again Mr. Martin could boast a multi-billion government surplus and he was running as the government when the Canadian economy was running on all cylinders. As well, he was not saddled with a war in a far off land and a casualty rate that could hit the psychologically important century mark during the course of the election campaign.

As well, Mr. Harper was kind enough to have an election platform as thin as the Liberal platform. There was not much to it. It remains to be seen if the Conservatives will have a comprehensive platform this time around or if they will stick to the "five priorities" strategy that he employed with some success in 2006.

The final big difference is now Mr. Harper is running as the leader of the government. Many pundits have pointed out the fact this will be his third campaign but it will be the first where he will be running as the head honcho. He will no longer have the luxury of running without having a record to defend. He will no longer have the luxury of being able to attack another party without them having plenty of ammunition to fire back. He will be the primary target for all of the other parties this time around and he will be subject to relentless attacks from them. He has never reacted well to criticism so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to almost six weeks of it.

Mr. Martin's decision to make the 2004 election about him and his leadership turned out to be an almost fatal political mistake. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Harper's decision to do the same thing will result in a different outcome.


Blogger Luke said...

"He will no longer have the luxury of being able to attack another party without them having plenty of ammunition to fire back."

Uh... are you serious? Do you remember how much Harper was attacked in his first two elections?

I also wouldn't bank on a thin platform from the CPC. I think they have been saving a lot of their policies for this election - planned, incidentally, to take place right before the American election. The Bush comparisons are weaker, since he's on the way out. There is no Obama White House honeymoon causing the MSM to praise all things liberal. And there is no McCain in the White House either, so again weaker Republican attacks.

Harper is a better campaigner than Martin ever was, so I don't think you can count on as many errors. If the Liberals are going to win this, they have to come with strong policy alternatives and take control of the debate. We'll see if they're ready.

September 05, 2008 8:08 PM  
Blogger ottlib said...

Yes luke he was attacked but not on his and his government's record.

That difference is crucial.

Paul Martin attacked him relentlessly in two elections but for every attack he threw at Mr. Harper, Mr. Harper could throw some of the less positive bits of the Liberal record right back at him.

Now Mr. Harper finds himself on the other side. He will have to defend a record that is not altogether positive. This government made enough mistakes and questionable decisions to keep the other parties occupied for months reminding Canadians of them.

That situation takes its inevitable toll.

September 05, 2008 8:26 PM  
Blogger wilson said...

Factors that make your comparison a no go:
Libs have no money, Conservatives have always had grasssroot support.
Dion can't speak English well enough for the 75% of canadians who speak English, to understand.
Harper doesn't have half his caucus ready to stab him in the back (Martin and Dion both did/do).
The Cons weren't trying to sell a new tax.
Martin fought against being brought down, Harper said 'bring it on'.

September 05, 2008 9:06 PM  
Blogger kitt said...

The Liberals aren't trying to sell a new tax but rather a tax shift, from the polluters to the taxpayers pocket. I am looking forward to paying lower personal income taxes and having surpluses in Ottawa again.

September 06, 2008 3:41 AM  
Blogger ottlib said...


In 2004 it was the Liberals with the money and the organization. The Conservatives were broke and still trying to build an organization out of the remnents of the Canadian Alliance and PC Party.

Leading up the the 2004 election there were many well documented instances of high profile PC members deserting the new CPC. No one believed he had really taken hold of his party or his new caucus.

Paul Martin called the election in the Spring of 2004 despite some advice from some quarters that he should wait until the Fall to let Canadians simmer down over the summer regarding the Sponsorship Scandal.

The Conservatives were not really trying to sell anything during that election. They focused almost exclusively on the Adscam and as kitt says there is another part of the Green Shift you are ignoring.

Being the government they have had the bulk of the media listening to their "tax on everything" mantra. That will change during an election when the other parties will receive equal coverage. We will see how Canadians react when they really begin to hear the other side.

Mr. Dion's English is better than Jean Chretien's.

September 06, 2008 10:12 AM  

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