Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The vicious cycle

When Michael Ignatieff first chose continued Con government rather than the progressive coalition, I noted the obviously fleeting nature of whatever gains Ignatieff could possibly have hoped to make. At that time, my focus was on the influence of Con-friendly media which wasted no time in declaring that the exact decision which they demanded ultimately served as a sign of weakness. But in retrospect, it's natural that the same forces would be at play in public perceptions as well: having opted for the short-term boost of having Harper supporters approve of his decision to roll over, Ignatieff set himself up for a slow bleed of support which has been playing out ever since.

And Ignatieff has only exacerbated that result by wrongly figuring that the formula would work again. Having built his original reputation on an elite-friendly choice to prop up the Harper government, Ignatieff has apparently assumed that he could keep boosting his numbers by setting up new confidence tests and then once again pretending to be a voice of conciliation. But in what should have been a predictable outcome, the response has been rather different when Ignatieff has manufactured his own crises in the absence of any leverage against the Cons. And that's resulted only in Ignatieff falling into the same vicious cycle as his Lib predecessor.

Every single time the Libs roll over, they lose at least a bit of confidence and support as demoralized voters realize that they're backing down in exchange for nothing. Which has served to accelerate the decline which Ignatieff was bound to face anyway - and made it more difficult for the Libs to break out of the cycle, as the opportunities for a confidence vote in the rear-view mirror look ever better than the ones up ahead.

That background brings us to the latest polling which the Libs are so eager to dismiss out of hand. The most obvious example is the latest Ipsos-Reid offering, which may well be rightly seen as an outlier in terms of party preferences. But the signs of weakness on Ignatieff's part go much further than that - and they can't be explained away by the Libs' current excuse about opposition parties having a tough go of it during the summer.

After all, even if one throws the Ipsos-Reid poll out the window entirely, the Libs have indeed dropped over the course of the summer in most polling - which can't be said for either the NDP or the Greens despite their facing the same obstacles as opposition parties. And the Ipsos-Reid result itself is best viewed as part of the polling picture rather than discarded entirely - both for the sake of completeness in taking into account all available data, and because there's plenty of reason for suspicion that it merely fits the pattern of Lib decline rather than serving as a result out of the blue.

Perhaps most notably, though, Ignatieff himself now has sunk to the lowest approval rating of any of the national leaders in Parliament, to go with a net rating comparable to Harper's. So rather than maintaining any political capital personally based on his post-budget warm-and-fuzzies, he now figures to act as a drag on his party.

Now, it may well be true that the Cons can be expected to lose a couple of points of relative strength once they're back under the scrutiny of Parliament this fall. And I'll deal shortly with the one issue which looks like it could well create the conditions for a vote of non-confidence where all of the opposition parties would have an obvious interest in bringing down the Cons.

But there are plenty of pitfalls waiting for the Libs as well. Not only will they have to answer for the apparent failure of their EI panel, but Harper has set up some obvious traps to try to bully the Libs into once again backing down.

And Ignatieff's current message itself seems like an ideal setup for another decision to roll over. For all the Libs' brinksmanship, they aren't sending any consistent message that the Cons need to be brought down (which would itself seem problematic since the current issues are the same ones where the Libs have already given Harper a pass).

Instead, Ignatieff's musings about "when to call an election" invite the Cons and the corporate media to respond with themes of "not now!" and "voters don't want one!". Which makes for the same old no-win situation for the Libs, who don't figure to earn many points in the elite opinion department either by raising the stakes or by backing down.

Of course, we surely know by now that the Libs consistently answer those questions in favour of hoping that factors outside their control will make the next election window a more promising one (even as their position deteriorates in the meantime). But that just leaves the Libs in the same old cycle. And if they haven't yet managed to shoot themselves in the foot enough times to make the Ipsos-Reid numbers into the baseline level of public support, that reality can't be more than a couple more capitulations away.

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