Jen Gerson: Did no one at Liberal HQ have a bad feeling about this?
The Liberals cannot think that this is going well.
A shift in my usual punditing approach is warranted given the fact that we are now finishing the first week of an election campaign. I'll be writing Friday roundups on the campaign, noting the general thrust of events. Because I feel at liberty to let my hair down on this newsletter, I'd like to start by writing a little bit about my approach to politics during a writ period.
Firstly, I would ask that you understand that I don't actually care who you vote for. How you choose to weigh information, your perceptions of leaders and their performances, your values — these are your own business. I'm not trying to convince you of anything, I'm just laying out my own view of things.
Of course, politics is a Rorschach test, and my perception is always going to be constrained by my underlying worldview. This is unavoidable. If you have a different worldview, your perception is going to be similarly constrained. This is also unavoidable. All I ask of you as a reader is to avoid mistaking the tensions raised by a clash of perception with malice. I respect my readers as intelligent people who think through problems and come to their own conclusions on issues. Take my observations, or discard them as they serve you.
Now, to begin.
If the Liberals aren't regretting this snap election yet, they're in even bigger trouble than they realize. I don't think a single thing has gone exactly right for them since the writ was drawn up on Sunday.
Firstly, the Liberals asked for an election on the same day that Afghanistan finally ripped its last seam. The opening hours of the writ period were marred by scenes of desperate Afghans falling off the sides of U.S. military transport planes. Canada was not spared. As we wrote here almost two weeks ago, interpreters and staffers who worked for us during the War on Terror — people who will now be at risk at the hands of a triumphant Taliban because they helped us — are still being prevented from coming to Canada by bureaucratic hurdles.
There's a general expectation that Canadians don't care much about foreign policy, but I'm not sure the rule will hold in this case. Many working journalists did at least one six-week stint in Kandahar when our troops were on the ground. Many maintained contacts with staffers who are now frightened for their lives. Many of us have friends or colleagues who were killed or wounded in places that have now fallen into Taliban hands. The connections are deep and I don't think this is an issue that the press corps will drop.
It certainly got the campaign off on a dour note.
Then the Liberals stepped up with an old move; the wedge issue. Mandatory vaccines for all federal workers, and for all people travelling by plane, train or boat.
The idea was to trap Conservative leader Erin O'Toole into opposing mandatory vaccination, demonstrating that he was leading a party of closet anti-vaxxers. Brilliant.
Except no one on the Liberal side apparently thought through the logistics of what they would do to those in the civil service who refused, so in practice what the Liberals are proposing is almost identical to the position the Conservatives eventually stumbled upon: vaccines for some, mini flags, uh, COVID tests for others.
What had been a ploy to use against O’Toole suddenly turned into an issue that left Trudeau facing tough questions he couldn’t answer; the wedge collapsed within 48 hours, as even the press corps started to feel dirty about politicizing vaccines in such an obviously craven fashion.
On Tuesday, the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives won a surprise majority government, to the grand, general horror of the polling industry. In an ominous sign for their federal counterparts, the provincial Liberals went into the writ period with an 83 per cent chance of winning a majority, according to polling aggregator 338. By election day, their odds of winning were down to 3.2 per cent. Their support didn't so much collapse — it base jumped off a tall building screaming “YOLO!” as the strings snapped.
Then came that weird clip from Justin Trudeau where he boasted that he didn't think all that much about monetary policy.
Look, I understand that the Bank of Canada sets inflation targets, not the Prime Minister, and I don't think that Trudeau is actually willfully ignorant about monetary policy. From the cheap seats, it looks like another example of Trudeau getting flustered, and then trying to cover with a joke because no one in his circle has managed to convince him that he's not funny.
"Justin," someone needs to say. "You ain’t no Dave Chappelle, friend. Your jokes don't land, and when when you try to defuse a moment of frustration with humour, you almost always come off as condescending, arrogant, or dumb. Take the hit and change the subject.”
Regardless, that clip is going to eat away at the myelin sheath of the electorate's hivemind if we find ourselves in an acute inflationary cycle over the next few weeks.
The Liberals must feel the passing of air from their own flailing. Otherwise, why would they be invoking the name of that spirit demon, Harper, and raising the alarm about how the Conservatives will threaten abortion access?
The pretext for the game of Spot the Hidden Agenda: Round 28, was particularly thin. The Liberals noted that the Conservatives mentioned the words "conscience rights" in their platform. It’s tucked in there, next to a paragraph about encouraging faith-based and other community organizations to expand their participation in palliative and long-term care.
This is worth unpacking a little.
Firstly, we already have “conscience rights” in Canada. The professional associations that govern doctors at the provincial level all maintain some form of clause that allows their members to opt out of procedures that would violate their religious or moral beliefs, like abortion.
Hell, even the Liberals' own Medical Assistance in Dying legislation protects the conscience rights of doctors who don't want to euthanize the terminally ill.
Now, I have no doubt that the Conservatives threw in a note on conscience rights as a sop to social conservatives — but like all sops, it's a hollow statement.
I also have no doubt that social conservatives would like to bring in marginal changes that they could build upon — like banning sex-selective abortion, or making a fetus a person for the purpose of criminal persecution. Likewise, Liberals will continue to treat all of these plays like slippery slopes to coat hangers and Arkansas. All of this is a dumb rhetorical game, and by now everyone ought to know it; there’s been no successful legislation on abortion since Morgentaler, and there is no mainstream appetite for creating any. Legislation would simply anger everybody; it couldn’t be progressive enough for the left, nor restrictive enough for the socon right. The only plausible end result is mutually assured destruction.
So I guess the question is: how many times can the Liberals hit the big red abortion button before it stops jolting their base into Pavlovian compliance — and how bad do things have to be in the Liberal war room for them to be smashing it on day four of the campaign? Summer isn't even over yet, guys.
Look, obviously these are early days, but if the last few days are any indication, the Liberals are running the same campaign that they still think they "won" back in 2019. Wedge issue, trap, pivot. Wedge issue, trap, pivot. Repeat until your opponent crumbles in the war of attrition.
I think it's also pretty obvious that the party doesn't have another strategy.
The Conservatives had a shaky start with their first response to the vaccine mandate issue, but they aren't falling into every jagged-edged metal maw with a hunk of seed in it like some kind of dim-witted road runner in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.
The historical moment we are in is also different. After 18 months of COVID, the electorate is traumatized, frightened, and increasingly scared about clicking the newspaper for fear of reading about another imminent crisis. And rightly so.
In the midst of all of this, Trudeau failed to do the one single thing he needed to do this week: give a convincing rationale for calling a snap election. Not only was he unable to do so, but the unstated inference from his non-answer inspires no confidence: "Because things are only going to get worse, and the longer I wait, the lower my odds of securing a majority."
The very act of calling the election is itself a vote of non-confidence in the immediate future. That means the Liberals are no more optimistic than the rest of us. But rather than channel that anxiety into some kind of Churchillian call to arms in the face of an uncertain time, what we're getting is the same old infuriating games of semantic keepaway.
That said, it's early. Perhaps no one cares yet, and the electorate is stunned enough to stumble into a Liberal majority. Certainly, the Liberals are hoping so, since that seems to be the extent of their plan.
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