Famed baseball hitting coach Charlie Lau once said “there are two theories on hitting a knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works.”
That’s the same kind of unhelpful advice I would offer to strategists working for the Liberal Party of Canada.
Except, I would tell them something like this: In politics there are three basic theories on winning an election, but unfortunately for you Liberals none of them work.
What are the theories, you ask?
Well, one theory is you win an election by having a strong leader. That, of course, can mean having a leader who is charismatic or who has a strong, magnetic personality.
Think Pierre Trudeau or Barack Obama.
It can also mean having a leader is who is a celebrity or a star—fitting that mold would be Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwight Eisenhower.
Strong leaders work well in politics because they attract resources, they attract media attention and most importantly they can attract voters who may not otherwise be interested in the political process.
Unfortunately, however, for the Liberals, no matter how you slice it, their leader, Michael Ignatieff, falls short in the leadership department.
Let’s face it, although intelligent and articulate, Ignatieff has all the charisma of a sea slug. And while he might enjoy celebrity status among readers of the Harvard Literary Review, he was never exactly a household name in
So for Liberals, strong leadership is not a path to victory.
The second theory to winning elections is you champion a burning issue. Brian Mulroney, for instance, used the issue of Free Trade in the 1988 federal election to help him achieve victory.
However, typically issue-oriented campaigns usually don’t fare so well. True, candidates promoting a strong issue can often attract attention, resources and volunteers, but that rarely translates into winning over voters. Consider the examples of issue-oriented candidates like Republican Ron Paul in the
A lot of people like their ideas, but not a lot of people vote for them.
What’s more, running on an issue campaign can be risky. If you choose the wrong issue, it can actually do you more harm than good. Just ask Stéphane Dion who adopted the ill-advised strategy of promoting a “green tax” in the last Canadian election.
And when it comes to issues, there’s another problem for the Liberals: what issue out there today is sexy enough to win an election?
Running on a promise to bring back the long-form census questionnaire, probably won’t do the trick.
That’s why it seems extremely unlikely running an issues-oriented campaign would work for the Ignatieff Liberals.
This leaves the final election theory. And it can be summed simply as the “Us vs Them” theory.
In other words, this strategy entails convincing voters that you represent the interests of the good “us” versus the interests of the bad “them.”
Who is “us” and who is “them”?
Well that depends on which voters you are trying to court. In the
For the Democrats, meanwhile, the “us” are “The Little Guy”, while the “Them” are “greedy corporate Wall Street interests.”
This approach is probably the easiest political path to take. However, it’s hard to see how it would work for the Liberals. Think about it.
Ignatieff, with all his Harvard degrees and his aristocratic pedigree, just doesn’t seem like any of us.
Sure the Liberal leader can try and fake it: he can drink beer out of the can, attend the odd kids’ hockey game and wear plaid shirts, but voters have a way of sniffing out a phony. They prefer candidates who are real.
So it seems “Us” vs “Them” is out.
And that in a nutshell is the dilemma for the Liberals. They simply don’t have a theory on how they can win and election. Indeed, this explains why their party is languishing in the polls with no prospects of turning things around.
Their only hope is if they can come up with a new theory of winning.
If they don’t Ignatieff will have a better chance of hitting a knuckleball then he has of ever becoming Prime Minister.