Thursday, January 26, 2012

The NDP’s Dilemma

There are people in this country who find the NDP leadership race fascinating.
That’s good news for the NDP.
The bad news, however, is the people who find it fascinating are also the same people who enjoy watching paint dry.
Meanwhile, everybody else in Canada is pretty much bored out of theirs skulls with the race.
Of course, you can’t really blame this state of affairs on the NDP leadership candidates. After all, it’s not as if they are doing anything wrong. In fact, the leadership race is unfolding exactly as it should according to Civics textbooks.  
The candidates are sticking to the issues, engaging in polite debate and refraining from any sort of “mud slinging.”
But ironically that’s the problem. Well-mannered, respectful political campaigns that stick to issues are by their very nature dull affairs.
And in politics dullness kills.
For one thing, boring campaigns make it difficult to attract media attention. That’s because the media really isn’t interested in issues or policies. What does interest political journalists is what I like to call the “politics of politics.”
In other words, the media cares about “horse race” stuff: polling numbers, who is ahead, who is behind and who has the momentum?
And the media also likes conflict and emotion; this is why negative attack ads always make news.
In short, a political race will get more column space in newspapers and hits on TV, if it has the drama of a “TV Reality” show.
So far, the NDP race has all the excitement of a chess match.
And this turns off more than just the media.
A dull campaign also makes it harder to mobilize party supporters. Think about it. Aside from hard-core party partisans, who wants to trudge to a gymnasium on a cold January night just to watch politicians argue over the importance of infrastructure funding?
At any rate, one NDP leadership contender, Brian Topp, recognizes the dullness problem.
Speaking recently to the media Topp declared: “If New Democrats are going to win, we can't be boring." He also suggested that unless the race gets a little spicier, Canadians will tune out and the party will suffer in the next election.
But here’s the dilemma the NDP faces: the party could also suffer in the next election if the leadership race actually does get spicier.
Consider, for instance, this scenario: Let’s say certain contenders in the race, after consulting their own polls, determine they are falling behind. Let’s further suppose they have no chance of boosting their support.
What do they do?
Well, the answer is obvious: attack the front-runner.
This might sound crass but it just makes sense; if you can’t increase your support, the only alternative left is to drive your opponent’s numbers down. And the only way to drive your opponent’s numbers down is to go negative.
We see this dynamic at work right now in the United States Republican presidential primary race, where Republican nominees have been hammering the front-runner Mitt Romney.
Watch for the same thing to happen in the NDP leadership race.
Mind you, all the candidates will deny this; they will talk about the need to remain positive and united. But sooner or later the instinct for political survival will kick in and the gloves will come off.
And when that happens things will escalate fast, with each side attacking and counter-attacking. Before you know it the NDP leadership race will resemble a UFC brawl.
That could cause a lot of wounds and bitterness.
But on the plus side, it will also generate lots of excitement and plenty of news coverage.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times)

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