Thursday, May 28, 2009

$50 Billion Deficit but its OK, we've Got Iggy Attack Ads

The combination of Ignatieff attack ads and record setting deficits make for an on juxtaposition. On the one hand, we have a Conservative government that did not predict this recession, let alone its depth and seems ... well ... uncertain about how to proceed. On the other, in fact, it seems that the Conservatives have decided that the best way to proceed on the deficit is to go into permanent election mode and do what political parties seem to believe they are supposed to do: mystify. The new Conservative adverts, if you have not seen them, have very little to do with anything other than attempting to convince some voters that Michael Ignatieff is not a leader but a basely self-interested free rider.

I like to think of myself as not naive and so I know that politics intrudes on the actions of political parties. In that spirit, my aim here is not to criticize these blogs or express outrage about them. Instead, the important question should be: what does this tell us about Canada? What does this tell us about Canadian politics? What does this tell us about the state of Canadian conservatism?

Some time ago (and in different blogs), I wrote that two things had happened to Canadian conservatives: (1) they had lost their ideological way and were no longer conservatives but something else, and that (2) because of this, they were going to have a difficult time winning elections because they lacked an alternative vision of the country. In place of a real national project (as offered by, say, the old Progressive Conservatives or the CCF or even the Communist Party! but most particularly the Liberal Party), Conservative election strategy turned on: (1) an appeal to disparate constituencies on the basis of a thinly disguised self-interest (vote for us and we'll give you money, aka a "tax break") and (2) tearing a page out of the Rove playbook and aping the American Republican electoral strategy.

The merits of this approach is that it certainly got conservatives together (the PCs and CA might not have agreed on principles but they sure agreed they were tired of being on opposition), and in a position that they could move into at least minority status in government when the Liberal Party imploded (I would argue that the Liberals did more to drive themselves from power in then did the Conservatives, but that's a story for another day, my point being: the Conservatives did not win; the Liberals lost). Now there are merits to this, at least from a political point of view. From a policy point of view, what it creates is: (1) permanent election mode, (2) with that mode geared not on building a true national coalition but luring in just enough voters to win (in other words, the idea of establishing a "big tent" as even Mulroney tried to do is just no there), (3) and a dearth of serious policy analysis that allows for implementation -- regardless of what one thinks of them -- of effective public policies.

This is of course the problem that Bush ran into; its the problem that Paul Wells document in his study of Harper and the return of Canadian Conservatives; and its the problem that the Conservatives are running into now with this recession. The issue, to put this in too simple terms, is that the Conservatives run out of ideas. And, they run out of ideas because they are not really interested in ideas and so ... why bother to have them. After all, I'm not interested in broccoli and so I don't have any about. The Conservative response to the recession is a case in point: attack ads that try to convince someone that Ignatieff is really just a snake oil salesman combined with outright robbery of Liberal anti-recession economic policy. In other words: don't vote Liberal because: (1) they can't be trusted, and (2) we stole their ideas anyway.

I continue to lament the lost age of serious Conservatism in Canada. Not because I find attack adverts offensive. Perhaps they are; the task of this blog is to provide a different order of assessment on them. I lament it because -- even while I disagreed -- it offered an alternative vision of the future and in so doing provided Canadians with choices and choices, it seems to me, are necessary for democracy.
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