Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A vicious cycle

Kudos to Steve and Scott for recognizing at least part of the problem with how the Ignatieff Libs have handled the Cons' demand for a $3 billion slush fund. But it's worth noting that the issue goes far beyond one of mere optics.

Here's Steve:
I find it hard to defend the Liberals decision to let the 3 billion "slush fund" pass, given our voluntary and unprovoked rhetoric. I would classify our "climb down" over this stimulus as the first potentially major gaffe of the Ignatieff reign. I remember well, the Ignatieff scrum, full of provocative language, entirely confident in saying Harper must "walk back down the hill", there will be no "blank cheques". I also recall many of us bloggers defending our stance, dismissing any suggestion that a Dion redux was on the horizon. In the end, all the bluster looks unnecessary, the strategy questionable, the frame entirely unproductive.
And Scott:
Look, if there are advisers in Ignatieff’s corner or if the caucus in general are still afraid to go to an election this early into Ignatieff’s tenure, and we were going to let this go through anyhow, there was no point of sending Ignatieff out there a few weeks ago claiming he would not give this government a blank cheque, when the Liberals did exactly that in my view (non-binding Liberal motion calling on the government to specify which departments and programs will have access to the $3 billion fund notwithstanding). That at the LEAST is bad optics.
Implicit in the message is that if the Libs had indeed planned to give in to the Cons' demands all along, then they'd have been better off signalling that fact from the beginning - or at least not feeding into a confrontation which they once again planned to concede. And it's true that that type of strategy would have avoided the "flip-flop" type of label.

But the greater issue isn't that of how the Libs are perceived, but instead what the Cons are able to get away with while they remain in power. And in that respect, Harper's knowledge that the Libs will eventually give in no matter what point they choose to press makes for a loser for the Libs no matter how any issue is framed.

In fact, it's not hard to see how the Libs might see their current strategy as carrying less costs for the party than being honest about their intention to keep Harper in power. As long as their supporters are willing to try to argue that the latest confrontation is different (and put their credibility on the line in support of the proposition that this time the party is serious about standing up for something), the Libs can count on having at least some positive statements being made about them even if those statements prove not to be true. And if the result is that Lib supporters spend 75% of their time defending the party for its posturing and only 25% expressing disappointment that it's once again caved in substance, the net result is almost certainly seen as being positive for the party - especially compared to the inevitable demoralization that comes from not even putting up a facade of opposition.

Here's the problem, though: the result for the country as a whole is based on the Libs' substantive votes, not their attempts to play to the cameras. Which means that by defending the Libs based on little more than a bare hope that the latest set of posturing means more than the previous few dozen, Lib supporters are ultimately only enabling the party in rationalizing that it can get away with propping up the Cons.

That makes for an obvious asymmetry in expectations: even as the Libs' supporters have gone out their way to argue that there's no link between past performance and future results, the Libs' party apparatus is taking entirely for granted that it can count on past supporters maintaining that position no matter how odious the party's next capitulation might prove to be. And in the absence of any reason to believe the Libs will start developing any inclination to stand up to Harper anytime soon, that cycle only figures to end if Lib supporters start wising up rather than pouncing on every available scrap of hope that next time will be different.

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