Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Up for debate

With the debates not far away, I'll take a few minutes to address what looks to me to be the most interesting question facing Jack Layton: namely, how to deal with Stephane Dion. There can't be much doubt that Layton will need to spend most of his time attacking Stephen Harper and highlighting the New Democrats' policies - but how should he handle the other leader who'll be claiming to be the main alternative to Harper?

From what I can tell, the best answer can be found in what still strikes me as a significant weakness of Dion's. I've pointed out before that Dion seems determined at times to focus more on perceived slights to himself and his party than on issues which are likely to resonate with voters. And that only seems to have intensified during the course of the campaign, with Dion using up valuable media exposure on such messages as "Canadians want to know me" and "Canadians are dying to vote Liberal" rather than anything which could possibly be relevant to anybody who isn't already a fierce partisan.

From that track record, it seems that Dion's instincts are simply to assume that Canadians generally are just as focused on putting the Libs first as he is. And with Dion apparently looking to be more spontaneous for the balance of the campaign, that's an impulse which Layton should be able to use to his advantage.

What's more, Layton wouldn't need to attack Dion at all to do so. Instead, I'd recommend simply planting the seed of Con "unfairness" or bullying in the context of the policy issues which Layton is talking about anyway - e.g. the decision to trash Bill C-30 after the opposition parties agreed to amendments on it, or the effect the Cons' dirty tricks manual has on the ability of Parliament to function for the benefit of Canadians generally. And crucially, those references should be made in a way that Dion would agree with rather than wanting to refute.

From there, I'd have to think Dion's reaction would be first to agree with Layton in substance, and then to seek to top Layton's examples with what he perceives to be even greater outrages directly primarily at the Libs. Which would have the effect of reinforcing the anti-Harper message which all the opposition parties are looking to sell, while at the same time establishing a gap between Dion's main priorities and those of Canadians generally.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the New Democrats are looking at the debate in terms of that type of strategic opportunity rather than simply using it as a conduit for the party's message as it seemed to in 2006. And if Layton is going for the latter effect, then the obvious choice would be to lump the Libs in as a Bay Street party within the usual themes of the campaign and leave Dion to respond to that.

But once again, it seems to me that the most important effect of the debate is to shape the narrative for the rest of the campaign - whether or not the above strategy is the one the New Democrats choose to go with. And the more Dion gets sidetracked into talking about slights to his party rather than policy, the more likely Layton is to emerge as the consensus winner.

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