Sunday, November 25, 2012

Looking for a Liberal Leader

The race to become the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada is underway. On April 14th, 2013, party faithful will choose the leader they hope will take Canada's "once natural governing party, but now third party in the House" down the path of renewal - a path they hope can reposition the party for success.

While the field currently boasts a number of candidates, at this time it appears that the lion's share of the attention will be lavished on three: Justin Trudeau and Martha Hall Findlay, who have both launched their campaigns, and Marc Garneau who will do so this week.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will be writing about this campaign - the candidates and the issues. To start things off, I thought I would borrow page from Andrew Coyne and offer some unsolicited advice.


As Mr. Coyne pointed out in this excellent piece the party has an important choice to make. It can choose to swing for the fences by seeing themselves as viable candidates for power in the next election, or it can preach patience and look to first generate stability and then build from its position as the third party.

His recommendation - the patience route - is reasonable, as it takes into account the litany of challenges the party is facing. It also suggests that settling in as a third party can afford the Liberals the opportunity to develop more definition to their party - something that has been dwindling since 2006.

The argument is that freed from having to play it safe as one of the two contenders, the party can lay out more robust, thoughtful and perhaps controversial policy positions. This is what Reform and the NDP did. The question is whether the Liberals have the patience necessary to survive a longer spell on the sidelines.


Building on Mr. Coyne's arguments, I offer some additional points for the Liberals to consider...

Define Progressive...

A centrist party is by definition a difficult thing to define. Move away from this nomenclature and instead look to define what progressive means in the 21st century.

Progressive needs to be more than a new way of saying "left". The Liberals need to frame progressive as being about balance and collaboration.

A progressive brand should be one which defines what fiscal responsibility means in a modern society. It needs to acknowledge that sound finances and sustainable social programs are equally important to the country's future prosperity.

It should be a brand which breaks both the mindset that taxation is bad, and the mindset that suggests that controlling spending is draconian. Neither position is true, despite what the traditional right or left will tell you.

More than anything, defining progressive is an opportunity to illustrate how economic policy, health policy, environmental policy, education, trade and foreign policy are all inter-connected. Too often they are presented as independent of one another, or even mutually exclusive.

A progressive party should look to connect the dots between the multiple policy threads that make up governing and tell a story which brings the voter into the dialogue. A progressive party should foster engagement, not discourage it.

A tall order, yes. But an opportunity to fill a void which is missing in Ottawa right now.

Pay Heed to the Lessons of Romney, part one...

As Justin Trudeau is currently learning, what you have said in the past can and will be used against you - often and with scant regard for context. And the impact can be significant.  Just ask Mitt.

Quick question: Who won the Republican nomination campaign? Answer: Barack Obama.

That campaign forced Romney to adopt positions which would appeal to the conservatives of the Republican party, but which would not appeal to mainstream American voters.  The result is that while Romney fought to define himself for Republicans, he opened the door for the Obama campaign to define him for the rest of the country.

The definition they offered was something the Romney campaign never really recovered from. Even when he tried he simply reinforced a sense that he would say anything to anyone. When a candidate loses the voter's "does he understand me" test, he or she loses the election. 

The Liberal candidates need to be mindful of this fact as they debate the issues. I am not for a moment suggesting that any candidate adopt a bland, un-offensive approach which tries to please all. But each candidate needs to find their space or ground. 

Moving all over the map, as Romney did, will be damaging. Define your campaign and stick to your principles.

And finally, be mindful as to how you go after one another. Learn not just the lessons of Mitt, but also the lessons of Stephane. As candidates you will look to draw contrasts between one another. But don't adopt the hyperbole that can hamstring whomever the eventual winner will be.

Remember, the Conservatives are just waiting for you to do so. Tread carefully.

Pay Heed to the Lessons of Romney, part two...

Romney won his party's nomination because he was deemed electable. The Liberals need to avoid the "electable trap".

Falling into this trap means choosing someone because you think they can deliver the goods at the next opportunity. For the Liberals, this would be a long-shot. 

As Mr. Coyne points out, the hurdles the party faces are not insignificant. While the unpredictability of politics reminds one that anything can happen, the current facts suggest that on balance the Liberals need more than 2-3 years to be in a position to challenge for government.

With this in mind, the party needs to select a candidate for the long run. The next leader needs two elections and time to build. It has to be someone prepared to put in the time out of the spotlight as they work to re-build.

In the end it is a balance. You need someone ready to lead should fortune swing your way. But you need someone patient to wait and prepared to do the work necessary to build.

And for heaven's sake, Liberals. Don't ditch the leader if they don't win.


In less than five months, the Liberals will select a leader. Between now and then, however, the party and its faithful have some thinking to do.

What are the lessons of the past six years? What investments are needed to re-build the party? Are you prepared to make them?

Many thought that electoral defeat was just the normal "time in the penalty box"; that after a spell on the sidelines it would be their turn again. The thinking was that at some point enough voters would simply tire of the Harper government once they knew more about them, and presto(!) the Liberals would be back in government.

They were wrong. And that is why we stand here today at the beginning of this campaign.

The leadership campaign is probably the Liberals last, best shot at repositioning themselves in the eyes of voters. The stakes are hight. Let's see if they are up to the challenge.

I, for one, hope they are.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's win and Romney's Loss

So, there it is. President Obama has been re-elected in what ultimately turned out to be a pretty comprehensive victory.

A look at some of the top-line Obama results is not happy reading for a Romney campaign team that was confident it could win:

  • 303 Electoral Votes, with the possibility of 29 more from still-counting Florida;
  • a majority of the popular vote;
  • a campaign that got to 270 without Ohio, Florida or Virginia;
  • winning a strong majority of women's votes (with women accounting for 53% of the entire electorate); and 
  • a lock on the African-American, Latino and youth vote. 
Add to this the ongoing demographic shift in America which favours the Democrats and you can glimpse a future that could prove challenging to a Republican party that is already struggling with how to balance the more traditional elements of the party with the Tea Party supporters.

While the future of the GOP is something that will be written about in countless post-mortems, today offers an opportunity to make some observations about the current state of the party and in particular the Romney campaign.

1. Paul Ryan

In 2008, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee became a large part of the campaign story for almost all the wrong reasons. Four years later, I would posit that questions will also be asked about the choice this time around.

Paul Ryan was not a bad choice in Palin-esque kind of way. But he appears to have been a bad choice in terms of how little he benefited the campaign. Over the course of the campaign he seemed to evolve from a being a choice that would ignite the base to almost being a "Oh yeah, Ryan, forgot about him."

When one looks at Ohio and Virginia and the central part they would play in a Romney campaign strategy, it seems odd that the Republican nominee chose to look elsewhere for a running mate. It also seemed odd that he failed to choose someone who could enable him to close the "he does not get me gap."

2. He doesn't get me

A candidate's ability to connect with their voter is crucial. The candidate who conveys empathy will always be more likely to garner the support of the voter who feels understood. This is a big part of what happened last night.

In this campaign, Mr. Romney basically made half an argument. He successfully made the economy the number one issue for voters, and in so doing was able to convince a majority that he was the man to tackle it. But that was only half the job.

The half he failed to do was convince people that in addressing the economy, he would see their interests as his. Mr. Romney could not demonstrate that he sufficiently understood their interests and that he was prepared to use that insight to guide policy. The choice of an ideologue like Ryan only compounded that problem. As did...

3. "47%"

Way back when in that fundraising dinner video, Mr. Romney infamously commented that there are 47% of Americans who would not vote for him. He described them as being a group that could not be convinced to take personal responsibility for themselves.

First, those remarks simply reinforced the "he doesn't get me" line of thinking. Second, I suspect those remarks helped drive to / keep with the Obama campaign the swaths of the electorate that carried them to victory - women, Latinos, African-Americans and youth.

4. From severely conservative to moderate Mitt and all stops in between

If you asked voters what Romney stands for and the values he represents in the spring, you would have gotten one answer. If you asked him last week, you would have gotten another.

And therein lies the problem.

The Republican primaries forced Romney to the right to such a distance that it would be difficult to come back without leaving the impression that this was a politician prepared to say anything to get to the Presidency. The primaries also left the Obama campaign with a wealth of material with which to frame Romney as out of touch and not aligned with the concerns of middle-class America. 

And frame him they did. Romney spent most of the summer and the early part of the campaign trying to chip away at that image. In the end he was unsuccessful.


The points above are by no means meant to suggest that the Obama campaign lucked into victory. From the narrative they set, to the convention they held and the ground game they put in place, it was all in all a superlative campaign - particularly in light of the economy they faced.

They also impressively recovered from the Denver debate and in the process made the race a whole lot more interesting for those of us watching.  Thanks for that, team Obama!


So, the campaign is over. The Nate Silver's of the world were proven right and Americans woke up to the same Congress and Executive that they had the day before. And all for the low price of $6 billion.

For the Obama campaign, deserved success. For the Romney campaign, a sense of a opportunity lost given issues and challenges facing America. And for this Guy Watching Politics, a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing political roller coaster. 

To those who took the time to read, thanks for joining me in following the long and winding the White House.

Monday, November 5, 2012

24 hours to go....give or take several protracted legal battles

"Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours to go.  I wanna be sedated." - The Ramones

I have always been of the view that you can find a song title or lyric to basically describe whatever is going on, and today is no different. This time tomorrow - 24 hours from now - the transition from voting to counting will be well-underway. For many it promises to be a tense and intense night. 

First let's start with the polling. The majority of published polls now show President Obama with the lead - both nationally and more importantly within the swing states that will decide the Presidency. 

As always, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight does a great job of pulling them all together. I would also recommend a look at Public Policy Polling's final set of polls here.

The bottom-line for many pollsters is that the consistency of the President's polling in these states and his re-taking of the popular vote lead make him the strong favourite tomorrow. You can see odds anywhere from two-thirds to north of 80% in terms of the likelihood of an Obama victory.

And yet we have a race that pundits continue to claim is too close to call. Why?

First, while the President has leads in several key states many are not decisive and some (when aggregated) fall close to the margin of error. Much will therefore depend on our second point - turnout. 

Turnout basically morphs into three questions:

- How much higher will Romney's 2012 turnout be than McCain's in 2008?
- How much lower will Obama's 2012 turnout be than Obama's in 2008?
- Are Romney's gains / Obama's losses sufficient to turn small Obama poll leads into Romney victories?

President Obama can afford - and undoubtedly will have - some declines from his 2008 turnout. But he can't afford a lot.

That said, his team are confident that their ground game can prove decisive, both in terms of early vote and on election day. For their part the Romney camp is claiming a better organization and much stronger enthusiasm (compared with 2008) can take them over the line. We will see.

Without question media and new cycles are also playing their part in driving this sense of a virtual dead heat. It makes for a compelling story and you cannot argue with the degree to which it has kept people engaged.

Yet there is one other element which could make things closer than polling suggests, and in fact which polling could not really account for in a model - voting irregularity.

Whether we are talking about provisional ballots, voting technology or voter identification, it is difficult to discern what impact, if any, voting irregularities could have on results. The experiences of 2000 and 2004 (as well as issues at the state level) have people worried about fraud and theft.

This is why Ohio is probably more densely populated with lawyers right now than an other part of the United States. And this is why there is a possibility that we will not know who wins tomorrow. Or Wednesday. Or even this week.

This is not the likely outcome, but it is not improbable. And in a country that aspires to be a shining city on the hill and the world's greatest democracy, the fact that this is not improbable is a tragedy.

So, hold on tight America! 24 hours to go....give or take several protracted legal battles.

Friday, November 2, 2012

"Can't talk, on the phone with Obama..."

A little more than a weekend separates Americans from today and election day. While early voting has been underway in some states for some time, Tuesday is the day the majority of Americans who choose to vote will do so.

As the homestretch morphs into the final push, the candidates are moving in and out of those few remaining states where both feel they have a chance. As noted in earlier posts, their blitz rallies are intended to mobilize their respective bases and convince those undecided or soft votes to vote for them.

Earlier today, I had the chance to "participate" in one of these final blitz rallies. No, I was not in Ohio or any other swing state.

I was on the phone, listening to an Obama campaign call with supporters. The call featured a member of the campaign team and another guy whose name escapes me. Oh yeah, President Obama.


Now, until today the closest I got to a something like this was last year when I was a listener on a Dalton McGuinty (remember him?) "telephone town hall" during the Ontario provincial campaign. In terms of the U.S., the closest I have come was listening to those infamous Romney 47% fund-raising dinner remarks on the web.

This time I was listening in on the Obama campaign team presenting supporters with their see of the race, followed by observations on the race from the President, and then a final wrap-up by the team.

The purpose of the call was two-fold. First to keep the supporters mobilized and to encourage them to vote (and vote early).  Second, to solicit funds.

While neither should be surprising, the real interest for me was in the messaging. Here are some highlights:

From the campaign team...

  • This campaign is looking like the campaigns of 2000 and 2004; they are extremely close and there is a lot at stake.
  • A reminder that in 2000 (in Florida) and 2004 (in Ohio), a few hundred thousand votes changed history, both times at the expense of the Democrats.
  • While Obama posted a strong electoral college victory in 2008, don't lose sight of the fact that the race was close with the popular vote seeing some 48% of voters vote Republican.
  • While the race is close, the campaign feels very good about where they are and the state of the race.

From President Obama...

  • You are not simply supporting a candidate, you are supporting a vision about America. You are supporting students who can now afford university, people who now have affordable health care, auto workers who have had their jobs saved. This is what I hear on the campaign trail.
  • You are fighting to preserve the progress we have made.  
  • We should win, but have to get our team out on the ground and ensure that we are not outspent.
  • We can only go as far as our resources take us, and right now the airwaves are being flooded with lies through Super PAC ads; lies which we need to counter.
  • Your support has got us this far and now we have to make the final push.


In terms of engaging the base, the lines did well to remind supporters about 2000 and 2004 - elections many Democrats feel were stolen from them. The reminder should promote engagement.

Those lines also were a caution against complacency. For all of the criticism from the right about the predictions and probabilities from the Nate Silver's of the world, the last thing the Obama team wants to see is a complacent base who feel it is won. Calls like this are intended to keep people focused and ready for November 6th.

I found as well that the narrative around "what is at stake" was well-struck. The President used his remarks to remind supporters about the impact they have had as Democrats, and as well as about (a) what else they can do if elected, and (b) about what they could lose if they are not.

Polling was also discussed and yes, for those who doubted, Ohio remains the focus. Interestingly, the narrative around the state of the race in Virginia left me feeling like they are not that confident there. Otherwise the commentary on polls and the state of the campaign was the first time I heard the Obama team say they "should win."

As for the fund-raising pitch, it was important that they tie it to the Super PACs and the recent onslaught of ads against the campaign. Consider this part of the call "fear-factor" time.

The subtext was something along the lines of the following: "After telling you what we have accomplished and what is at stake, I remind you of our foes and the resources they have, and I ask you to open your wallet one last time."

I suspect more than a few did.


So there you go. What started as a regular Friday turned into an unexpected and interesting experience for a politics watcher, and a small glimpse into a campaign that I have followed from (somewhat) afar.

The next three days will be frantic and then it will all be over. Ish.

I expect a long night on Tuesday and think we may have a few more ups and downs between now and when we know who arrives first after walking along the long and winding road to the White House.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Polls, Predictions and Probabilities...Oh My!

Voting day is nearly here and, not surprisingly, the chatter and speculation as to who will win has intensified each day we get closer to November 6th. Also not surprisingly, each side has expressed confidence that they will be successful.

So where are we? Can anyone say with confidence that they will deliver the goods on Tuesday?

Certainly no one can say with any certainty that they will win. The simple fact is that there is an awful lot of noise in the air relating to polls, predictions and probabilities (...oh my!). 

Let's consider a few points.

1. In a close race, it is imperative that a candidate project confidence and predict victory. And this is a close race. We are not in a race where it is clear who will win and the poor other guy / girl is left to say things like "we'll have to wait for the voters to decide" - something which, if you read between the lines, is more like "please God, let it end."

No, we are in a race in which the polling noise, economic environment and sense of political division all open the door to multiple predictions from state to state. As of this morning, Real Clear Politics showed 11 "toss-up" states - in effect the states that will decide the Presidency.

In such an environment, a candidate needs to make sure their base is sufficiently energized to get out and vote. And, for those few (but potentially decisive) who are waffling or undecided they need to convey a sense of momentum. You will see this from both tickets and their supporters, so see it for what it is.

2. At this stage in the campaign, it sometimes seems like there are as many polls as there are voters. With so many polls coming out, it is important to consider the source, the sample, the methodology and the history of the polling firm.

As noted in earlier posts, Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight blog at the New York Times is a must read. This is especially true if you have an interest in better understanding polling and how one might view the varying results from the different polls out there.

The model used by Mr. Silver doesn't just average out polls, it weights them by taking into account things like methodology and sample, among others. Knowing whether a polling house is more traditionally Republican or Democratic leaning is a variable. Phone versus on-line samples is a variable.  Consistency in terms of results and accuracy is a variable.

All to say, a poll can be commissioned to suggest many things and its results can be read many ways. Also consider the fact that the real polls which actually drive a candidate's behaviour are the ones we never see. Polling is instructive and indicative, no more. 

3. Building on the subject of polls we have another topic that has come up with more frequency over the past week - particularly in relation to the Silver blog. It is the question of probabilities

Sites like Silver's, Real Clear Politics and others are playing in the world of probabilities. The problem is that people tend to gravitate around the numbers they provide at the expense of the story.

If you only took a cursory glance at Five Thirty Eight you would likely look to the right at the forecasts for vote-share and electoral college votes. If you did so, you would miss a regular and frank explanation as to the rationale behind those numbers.

This rationale does not suggest certainty, it suggests probability. Odds, if you will. For this reason, I find aggregators such as this one helpful in cutting through the polling noise and allowing one to make sense of the landscape.

And yet, blogs like Silver's have come under criticism from the right as being biased towards the Democrats. 

The thing is, probabilities which factor in a host of variables are more likely to be accurate than any one poll. This does not mean that the outcome they suggest as probable is a certaintly; it is just to say it is more probable based on the information available.

My take? The criticism of Silver is a case of shoot the messenger. I would wager that the internal polling of the right is aligned with his probable outcomes.

Given the points above about confidence and projecting momentum, if Silver is correct (which I think he is) and influential on the media narrative (which he certainly is), it is natural that the Romney campaign / supporters would come out against him.


Pity the voter who has yet to make up their mind. Between candidate predictions, a plethora of polls and talk about probabilities there is a lot of noise out there. How one hears it can influence how one votes.

Factor in ads and newspaper editorials and it gets noisier. And tomorrow we have the final jobs report before election day.

All of it makes one wonder: who is more eager for November 6th to come and go - the voter or the candidates?  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nine More Days Until the Next Four Years

Single digits. In terms of days before the U.S. election, we are into single digits. With nine days to go, the two tickets are busily criss-crossing the country and dropping into and out of the swing states that will decide the Presidency.

With nine days to go Super PACs and other lobby / public advocacy groups are making their own final pushes, reaching out through advertising and trying to make their case as to who would be best placed (or more often arguing who is worst placed) to lead the U.S.

And with nine days to go the media is following it all and stoking a sense of anticipation about a close race and a night - November 6th - that will set the tone for the next four years in American politics.

This is the homestretch.

...cue CNN dramatic music with a voice over by a visibly excited Wolf Blitzer.


When you boil it all down, there are essentially two things on which the Obama and Romney campaigns are each focused in these final days:

1. Convince the very few remaining undecided voters to vote for them; and
2. Make sure that their committed voters - their base - is mobilized and ready to get out and vote.

Of the two, the second is probably the most important given that there is such a small slice of the electorate on the fence.

Getting one's base energized, engaged and out on voting day is crucial. At this late stage the candidate who is best able to deliver on this front will likely win.

Voter mobilization will be important for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious, is the need to get your supporters out and voting in those areas where you need them the most.

Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire and states like them will decide the campaign. Polling in many of these states is close and therefore making sure your people vote is critical.

Second, while the Electoral College will decide the Presidency both candidates would also like to be able to secure the moral victory by capturing the popular vote. To this end, running up high margins in those states in which you expect to win is also important.

This second point is particularly important for President Obama. As things stand, he is forecast to win the Presidency (most aggregators are giving him odds of anywhere from 60-40 to 75-25).

However, the popular vote is something that could well go to Mr. Romney. Capturing both would do President Obama a world of good as he prepares to tackle the economy and other challenging issues.

Tough decisions are required in the months and years ahead. It would be better for the President to be able to make them without wearing the label of "the guy the majority of Americans voted against."


The point above leads one to start thinking more about 10 days from now and beyond. About what America looks like after this campaign and how it will move through the next few years.

Make no mistake, this is an incredibly divided country. And it is a divided country with big challenges on its plate and tough decisions ahead.

Here are some questions to consider...

1. Post-November 6th, the U.S. will be able to turn the page on the campaign and rhetoric, and focus on the issues at hand?

2. Is the U.S. prepared to have a real conversation about taxes and tax policy?

3. Are the elected officials - House, Senate and the President - finally prepared to get back to the business of governing the country?

A side-story to these questions concerns the Republicans. What might a loss mean to a party already being pulled in two directions? How does the party and the Tea Party react to defeat and what does that mean for American politics?


We are in the homestretch and the final sprint is underway. In nine days time (or thereabouts, depending on late returns and potential court challenges) we will know who will be President of the U.S. for the next four years.

The answer to that question, however, opens up the door to many, many others. After the campaign, the real work begins.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Entering the Home Stretch of the Long and Winding the White House

Part of a continuing series on the U.S. Presidential Election. For more reading, be sure to check out the earlier posts: hereherehere,
here and

Last night the fourth and final debate of this 2012 U.S. Presidential campaign was held. With the conclusion of that debate we have entered the home stretch; the final two weeks before election day.

In fairness, though, calling it a final two weeks does not do justice to the next fourteen days. No, what we can expect is something that would better be described as frantic race to the finish of what has become an incredibly close race.

So what should we watch for?

In an earlier post, I referenced six things to keep an eye on...

1. Momentum
2. Who's spending money and time where
3. Polling, especially at the state level in the key swing states
4. Voter enthusiasm
5. The economy
6. Wild cards like Libya, Iran, Super PAC activity, voting irregularities / suppression.

How things play out under these broad areas or themes will go a long way towards giving clarity about the final two weeks and what we can expect on November 6th.


Currently, if you have a look at Nate Silver's excellent blog or Intrade you see that President Obama remains the favourite. The degree to which he is the favourite varies among such composites, but in all cases a key driver of the modelled outcome is the small leads he holds in the various swing states.

However, there continues to be a heavy focus on the national numbers - things like Gallup, the various media-sponsored tracking polls, etc. Those numbers tell a story which now favours Governor Romney.

Those numbers are important, without question. But in my opinion, their importance is less about the race we see now and more about an outcome with which we could be presented.

At this time there is a possibility that President Obama could win the Presidency but lose the popular vote. The probability is still low, but it has been increasing with each new national poll that shows Governor Romney with momentum.

Under such a scenario, the potential for real progress in the U.S. in the areas in which it is sorely needed is limited. Further complicating things is a Congress that will likely be split between the two parties (Republican House, Democratic Senate).

A country that is already severely polarized would become more so. That's not good for anyone - American or otherwise.


Quick trivia question - on November 6th, 2012, which state will likely lay claim to having the most lawyers per capita within its borders?

One other scenario has been on my mind lately; namely whether we have the potential for an election like the one we saw in 2000. This time around replace the state of Florida with the state of Ohio.

As President Obama's margins get thinner, all roads appear to be leading to Ohio. For the President, the state represents a firewall against a Romney surge elsewhere. For Romney it is a must-have, as without it his path to 270 becomes extremely difficult (though technically not impossible).

For these reasons one cannot overstate the bastion of hyper-political activity the Buckeye state will become between now and November 6th. Unfortunately, with so much at stake the concern about voting irregularity becomes legitimate.

Florida 2000 is still fresh in people's minds, as are the suggestions of irregularity in Ohio in 2004. In both cases, the White House was delivered to the Republicans. This time around, expect both parties to be on the ground, in large numbers, contesting anything and everything that they can.

All of which leads to the possibility of a 2000-redux. We might not know who wins right away.


Last night the debates offered President Obama and Governor Romney a chance to make their final arguments to a national audience. Now they take those arguments on the road.

To Virginia and Wisconsin. And Nevada and Colorado. Perhaps to Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  Likely to Florida. Definitely to Iowa. And yes, to Ohio.

Yet for all that work, money, time and energy it is still quite likely that we could get to the morning of November 6th and still be unsure as to who will win.

This is why I am A Guy Watching Politics.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Devil is in the Details - what does Obama 2.0 look like?

On Monday the final debate in the 2012 U.S. Presidential election campaign will be held. Following that debate, we will enter the homestretch - a frantic two week period during which the candidates and their parties will do all they can to close the deal with the voter.

One thing I will be looking for as we head into that period is the degree to which either candidate looks to move beyond a "thematic campaign", and starts to be more specific as to what the voters could expect from either a first Romney or second Obama term. Of particular interest to me is the Obama campaign.


The Obama campaign has been criticized for not doing enough to define for the voter what they can expect if the President is elected to a second term. Instead the approach they have taken has been to: (a) attempt to cast doubts about what a Romney Presidency would mean; and (b) articulate a more high-level thematic description of a second term.

I see this as a weakness and a potential problem.

In 2008, Mr. Obama could adopt such an approach. After eight years of George W. Bush, many Americans were looking for something new and different. They were looking for hope and change; they were looking for an ideal within which they could see themselves and their aspirations.

The 2008 Obama campaign was ideally suited for the electorate to which it presented itself. This time around, things are different and more is expected.

To start, the President has a record in office that he needs to defend/promote. In this regard, I think his campaign is doing reasonably well. Building on the Clinton DNC narrative, the campaign has done a good job of defining the scope of the challenges they encountered and the impact of the measures taken in response.

What they haven't done as well is describe what the next four years would look like.

The Obama campaign has thus far not really defined what they would do in response to an historically high unemployment rate. They have not defined how they plan to address the deficit. We know what their goals are, but don't have as much visibility on the "how we get there" side of the equation.

This criticism can equally be directed at the Romney campaign, but there is a difference. After four years in office, President Obama should have a better sense as to the plans ahead. He should have more to offer. And in fairness, I suspect he does.

The problem is that they are not sharing it. They are playing it safe during the campaign because everyone knows that there are still difficult times ahead, with difficult choices to made. Romney is doing the same, but as the challenger he will get more of a free pass.

The thing is, people expect more of a President who promised so much. In 2008, Mr. Obama eloquently captured and articulated people's hopes. This time around, I think that while most voters appreciate the scope of the challenges he faced upon taking office, they nevertheless want to see more of a plan.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Long and Winding the White House (part 3)

Welcome to part 3 of The Long and Winding the White House.  Follow the links if you would like to read part 1 or part 2.

Last night brought us the latest milestone in what is becoming a fascinating campaign to watch - the second Presidential debate. President Obama and Governor Romney squared off in a town hall-style debate, each with their own goals.

For President Obama the objective was to put in a stronger performance than the widely criticized one in Denver. A strong performance was seen as crucial given the momentum Romney had been enjoying since the first debate; momentum which had eaten considerably into Obama's lead and in the process was making the race extremely close.

For Governor Romney, the objective was to hold onto the initiative and continue to make progress on selling himself to voters. He needed to build on the success of Denver and enable people to credibly see him as President.

In many respects, both men accomplished their objectives in a debate which the President appeared to win. Obama delivered a performance which should re-energize his base (and ideally support ongoing fundraising) and which more succinctly drew sharp distinctions between the two candidates.

Romney, although considered by many to be the loser, gave a competent performance (with a few exceptions - see below). He was at his best when laying out his argument as to why Americans were worse off - an argument which could prove decisive in those states hardest hit by the recession.

Polling over the next several days will tell us more about how Americans feel heading into the final debate on Monday and then the homestretch. But as you anxiously await those polls, here are some things on my mind after last night:

1. What did women think? The debate has put women front and centre as the demographic that could hold the keys to the White House.

After last night, I am not sure whether to wonder if Romney will get women voters, or whether to wonder does this guy actually get women voters? Some of his comments last night - binders, planned parenthood, and reminiscing about his female chief of staff leaving work to cook for her family in response to a question on pay equity - felt like they were from left field. Or 1950.

2. Bipartisanship and the Romney record in Massachusetts.  See, if his record was so stellar why: (a) did he veto over 800 bills as Governor - hardly an example of bipartisanship; (b) does he not have a hope of winning in the state? The ironic thing is that the one area in which he demonstrated a real openness to bipartisanship is on the one accomplishment he avoids talking about - Romneycare.

3. Libya. On a subject on which Obama should have been on the ropes, Romney conspired to drop the ball (albeit aided by the moderator). But rest assured, this issue is not going away and it could well be what Romney leads with on Monday in the foreign policy debate.

It will be interesting to see to what extent foreign policy has an impact in what should be almost exclusively an economy-driven election.

4. Which Obama is the real Obama - last night's version or that fellow who was on stage in Denver? And which one will we see in Florida on Monday? The juxtaposition between the two debates was actually striking. There was a sharpness, where in Denver we saw rambling. There were clear, thoughtful messages.  And importantly, the President was engaged and (particularly through the last half) engaging.

5. The Clinton narrative is now the Obama narrative. I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. The Obama campaign is essentially now a road-show of the Clinton speech from the DNC in September. And I mean that in a good way.

I recently read an article on the relationship between the Clintons and Obama, including the preparation of that speech. This was not an Obama campaign speech delivered by the former President. This was Clinton looking to set the terms of the election and frame the voting booth question.

And now you hear those lines he and his advisors crafted being spoken by the President on the hustings, on that stage last night and by a host of supporters in spin rooms and in the media.


So, what next? My thinking is that last night essentially re-set the campaign and effectively put us on course for a roller-coaster, 3-week election for the Presidency.  I think Romney's momentum has been blunted such that we are left with a campaign which either could win.

Governor Romney has shown us over the past two weeks that he can win. President Obama showed us last night that he can fight. We have one more debate before we enter the homestretch. This will be interesting.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Long and Winding the White House (part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of The Long and Winding the White House. You can read part one here.

The U.S. Presidential campaign is about to enter an important phase. With only three full weeks to go, the race has tightened considerably. This week will feature the second Presidential debate - a debate many see as critical to President Obama's chances of recapturing the momentum.

While we will be watching, tweeting and writing about the debate here at A Guy Watching Politics (@PoliticWatcher on Twitter), we would be remiss to view this week, or the remaining ones solely through the lens of the debates. As always there is a lot going on.

One aspect of the race that I want to talk about focuses on the role of the running mates. Last week we had the Biden-Ryan debate; a debate which arguably did more than the first Obama-Romney did to lay out the actual choice Americans are being asked to make.

Moving out of that debate and back onto the hustings, the role of the running mate will start to become more important. This is particularly the case for Paul Ryan.


The Romney campaign is essentially one, long tight-rope walk. It is a walk that needs to be simultaneously mindful of the base it needs to energize and the moderate, swing voters it needs to get onside.  As such, the potential for missteps is great, as evidenced here.

Cue Paul Ryan.

Over the coming weeks his job is to keep the base engaged. He is there to remind them what a danger Obama poses to their views of government and society; to show that the Romney-Ryan ticket is one that is sensitive to the more socially-conservative values that the Republican / Tea Party base considers their own.

Doing so allows Mr. Romney to focus on the real prize - the moderates and those who consider themselves to be neither Republican or Democrat. This is a slice of the electorate which more closely resembles the voters that elected him Governor of Massachusetts.

Mr. Romney simply cannot get these voters onside if he embraces a more right-wing or Tea Party tone. But given the closeness of the race he cannot afford to alienate either them or the Republican base. Mr. Ryan offers him the ability to speak to both simultaneously. It's like political tag-team wrestling.

Over the remaining three weeks, I suspect we will see more of the moderate Mitt Romney, while his running mate rouses the base. Yes there are risks, not the least of which is the potential for unscripted or particularly partisan rhetoric by Mr. Ryan that can become a story and detract from the Romney message.  

But overall these are risks worth taking. Between Ryan and the Super PACs, Mr. Romney has the chance to effectively campaign on multiple fronts - with multiple messages - at the same time. If this is done successfully, it could prove decisive.

All to say, there is a lot to look at between now and November 6th...

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Long and Winding the White House (part 1)

Like many politics watchers here in Canada, I have found my attention being drawn with greater frequency towards the U.S. Presidential election. With a little less than four weeks to go, President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are locked in an extremely close race for the White House.

As we enter the final weeks of the campaign, I wanted to give my take on what I have seen so far and what I will be watching for between now and election day. But before I do, I would strongly encourage those interested in the campaign to check out the following writers/bloggers:

- Nate Silver at the New York Times;

- Dave Weigel at Slate; and

- Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post.

All three are regular posters and twitterers - @fivethirtyeight, @daveweigel, @TheFix - and are definitely worth a look.

Now, in terms of the race we have seen a lot happen in the weeks since the Republican and Democratic conventions (I am not going to delve into the pre-convention campaign or I will be writing all night). Let's try break the race into three phases:  post-conventions; the debates; and home-stretch.

1. Post-Conventions

This year the Republicans held their convention first, followed quite quickly by the Democrats. While the latter is remembered for some excellent oratory (Bill Clinton being the highlight), the former is remembered for Clint Eastwood's conversation with an empty chair.

So we'll chalk that one up to the Democrats, then.

Kidding aside, what the Republicans tried to do was "introduce" Romney to the electorate on their terms. In this regard, they did not succeed. The Democrats had already framed a narrative on Romney as an out-of-touch ally of the super wealthy.  

The Republicans did not do enough to counter this, and instead gave us a convention that featured speeches than ranged from the lacklustre, to the odd/personally self-serving (looking at you Governor Christie from NJ and Senator Rubio of Florida), to the surreal (*sigh* Clint). 

In contrast, the Democrats crafted a convention that energized their base and, particularly through Clinton's speech, set out the broad strokes of the election narrative on which they would campaign. It is a narrative that looks to make the case that while there is still work to do, America is on the right track following such an unprecedented financial and economic crisis.

They focused on the middle class, veterans and seniors, and in so doing established a link between their message and the swing states that will ultimately decide this election (looking at you Ohio, Florida, Virginia). The result was a strong post-convention bounce.

At this point, allow me to borrow from the wonderful world of infomercials...But Wait, There's More!

Shortly after the conventions came the release of the infamous 47% video. I won't go into details, but you can read my earlier post here.

The video release built off of the convention bounce to such an extent that the polls - again, particularly those in the swing states - moved President Obama's numbers up quite significantly. In the days leading up to the first debate, there were many who felt that the outcome of the election was set and that the Romney campaign had dropped the ball.

But politics is a funny thing...

2. The Debates

As of today, we have had two debates: the first of three Presidential debates and the only Vice-Presidential debate. In the run-up to the first Obama-Romney debate we were all told that debates do little to change things; that it would take something quite significant to move numbers that appeared so heavily in favour of Obama.

Of course what no one considered was that Obama would perform so poorly (no errors, but nothing to energize anyone -  he was flat), and that Romney would perform so strongly (engaged, on message, relaxed and clearly enjoying himself).

Of the two, Romney's case for change was widely considered to be more effective than Obama's case for a second term. The immediate polls declared Romney a clear winner, but more importantly the media narrative started to shift.

In the days following the debate we saw what I often consider to be a very chicken-egg reaction playing out. Commentary which described momentum shift in favour of Romney and polls which evidenced this shift. The former was influenced by the latter and vice versa.

The result was a significant tightening of the race, essentially bringing us back to where we were late summer, pre-convention.

Today, we are a day removed from the Biden-Ryan VP debate which most consider a tie. Biden did what he needed to bring back some energy, get the Democrats back on message and do what many hoped Obama would do - attack. Ryan did what he needed, which was look a suitable running mate and up to the job.

In essence what they did was set us all up for Tuesday when the top of the ticket candidates meet again. Cue more late nights for a certain Guy Watching Politics.


Of our three phases (post-conventions, debates and home-stretch), we are part way through the second and are set up for what promises to be a very interesting three and a half weeks. Here are some things I will be looking for:

Momentum is something that is very difficult to grab back, particularly if the media narrative starts to be built around the one who has it. This is where Obama was last week, and he needs to have a much more effective performance on Tuesday if he wants to avoid further slippage.

Importantly, the way in which a candidate tries to seize it back needs to be measured and thought out or it can backfire. The candidate who starts to look or is portrayed as being desperate will lose, so care needs to be put into the arguments, tone, manner, ads - basically everything.

Who's spending where is a great predictor for campaigns. It is an indicator that shows where candidates feel they need to spend. If Obama has to start directing funds to those states which only a few weeks ago seemed solidly blue, that is a problem. If either candidate starts pulling out of states, that also tells you something.

Look at the advertising and the time the candidates spend in: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin. If you are a Democrat, be concerned if you see more of Obama, Biden or Clinton in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Everyone on both sides will be in Ohio. Be sure to say hi.  

Polling, both nationally and at the state-level, will tell us a lot. Now is probably a good time to pay more attention to the state polls. Building on the point above remember that states elect Presidents. This election will come down to a few swing states. Notwithstanding his post-debate challenges, President Obama still has more ways to 270 than Mitt Romney. State polling will tell us more in the coming weeks.

Voter enthusiasm is critical. The ability to engage, rally and mobilize your base is one of the keys to success. When we look at Obama's poor debate, while this may have "moved" some voters towards Romney it also energized/deflated identified Republican/Democrat voters.  

Put another way, the swings we saw post-debate probably had more to do with base-engagement than they did about moving un-decideds. An energized base propelled Obama in 2008. Who will benefit in 2012?

The Economy and that all-important jobs number is critical.  Dropping below 8% was good for Obama.  There is one more report before voting day.  Just sayin'.

Wild Cards such as Libya, voter suppression tactics, Super PAC spending, the EU, Iran - any and all of this could conspire to knock the wind out of either candidate's campaign.


I would make one last point on the polls and where things are today. Viewed through the lens of the last 2-3 weeks, the Democrats are rightly disappointed and dispirited. They were soaring post-convention/47 per cent video, and are now engaged in a very close race.

The thing is, given the economy and the divisive views on health care and the deficit, if you offered a Democrat in January or June the kind of numbers they have now (nationally and in swing states) as we head into the final weeks, my gut tells me they would have bitten your hand off.


The race to the White House takes a candidate down a long and winding road.  With over three weeks to go, there are more twists and turns ahead. Let's watch...

*part two to follow post-debate - follow me on Twitter @PoliticWatcher for live commentary on the debate

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hidden vs the Not-So Hidden Agenda

This past week the House of Commons voted on a controversial motion which proposed a study on when human life begins. Motion 312, tabled by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, was defeated 203-91.

The main talking point coming out of the vote was the fact that among the ranks of the 91 MPs who supported the motion were a number of Cabinet Ministers, including Rona Ambrose (Minister for the Status of Women), Jason Kenney (Immigration) and Peter Van Loan (Government House Leader).

For opponents of the motion, they saw it as an attempt to re-open debate on Canada's abortion laws. Those who voted against it did so either because they are in agreement with those laws, or (in the case of some Conservative MPs) because they were adhering to the Prime Minister's pledge that his government would not be opening up a debate on abortion.

Notwithstanding the motion's defeat, there remain many who feel that the Harper government continues to favour a social conservative agenda. Part of the evidence - the number of Conservative Cabinet Ministers who supported the motion.

Is this proof of a hidden agenda? No.


The accusation of a hidden agenda has dogged the Conservatives (and before them the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party) from day one. It is an accusation that was used to great effect by the Liberals, particularly when Stockwell Day was the Leader of the Official Opposition, but also in the dying days of the campaign that gave Paul Martin his minority.

However, the governing record of the Conservatives does not show evidence of such an agenda. Yes, one can point to the successive minorities to suggest that the government was not in position to advance such a social conservative agenda.

But now, 16 months into its "strong, stable minority", the Conservatives are still far from any credible suggestion that they are about to spring a sea change in social policy on Canadians.


1. Power. Mr. Harper is well-aware that the majority of Canadians are not supportive of the very social policies so many of his supporters favour. Even when factoring in the (generally) socially conservative immigrant population that is increasingly important to Conservative fortunes, the evidence still suggests that on balance, Canadians are more centrist in terms of social policy (if not liberal).

Recognizing this reality, Mr. Harper will stay away from any debate that could imperil his chances in an election, or allow his opponents to more successfully frame a social conservative narrative against him.

2. Priorities. While Mr. Harper may have catered to the more socially conservative members of his caucus and base over the years in terms of rhetoric, he would have done so for one reason - keep them engaged and mobilized. Rhetoric feeds coffers and keeps a base energized and ready to act.

Mr. Harper's focus has always been on something else. He has consistently adhered to an agenda which, far from being hidden, has been out in the open.

That priority is a fundamental re-shaping of the economic principles upon which the federation has existed for decades. The adoption of a social conservative agenda would simply serve as a distraction away from this priority.


Look at areas like tax policy, equalization or the division of powers. Look at areas that boil down to the role of government - in terms of policy, regulation and environmental stewardship.

In the vast majority of cases, we see an agenda that is focused on re-defining the relationship between the federal and provincial governments, between the government and business, and between the government and individuals.

There is no room in this agenda for an ongoing debate on issues like abortion or gay marriage, for example. While they may be "meat for the base", they are not the prize as far as Mr. Harper is concerned.

What they can do, unfortunately, is distract people from what is happening. In this regard, I suspect a small part of Mr. Harper is pleased to see people get exorcized about policies he would never implement, while at the same not paying as much attention to those that he will.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My fellow Americans. Well, 53% of you anyway...

Mitt Romney. 47%. What can you say?

For those who have not been following the U.S. Presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney has attracted the worst kind of media attention this week.

In a nutshell, a video of Mr. Romney addressing donors this past spring at a private, $50,000/person fundraiser has been released. In it, Mr. Romney speaks quite candidly about the electorate and in particular about the 47% of Americans who:

(a) will vote for President Obama no matter what;
(b) don't pay income taxes;
(c) possess a victim mentality;
(d) are dependent on the state; and
(e) will never be convinced to take personal responsibility for themselves.

During his remarks, Mr. Romney made it quite clear that this is not a portion of the electorate on whom he intends to focus much time during the campaign. In effect, he was saying that in the context of his search for votes they were a lost cause.

Now I could go on at length about the multiple problems with these remarks, but I will leave that to the media and the Obama campaign. Let me limit my comments to these points:

- His remarks ignore all of the other taxes individuals pay, often in percentage amounts which total more than the percentage of taxes he pays;

- His suggestion that this 47% is not prepared to take "personal responsibility" is insulting and ignores the fact that this percentage includes, among others, seniors, veterans and working families.

- He is campaigning to be President of the United States, not 53% of it and therefore needs to be seen as a President for all and not some; and

- He has given a very stark message to donors which in terms of tone and scope is markedly different from his remarks on the campaign trail, all of which gives the impression of someone who is not being forthright with those whose votes he is seeking - "one message for a vote, another for a dollar."

Suffice to say, the evening the video was released probably made some Republicans hark back to the good old days when the extent of their problems was a rambling Clint Eastwood and an empty chair.


If we move beyond the obvious and deserved criticism of Mr. Romney's remarks, there is another story and it is one which is common to all modern political campaigns. It is the story of targeting and focus.

During the 2011 Ontario election, I posted this piece on the forgotten voter; the voter who tends to get lost in the messaging as the parties vie for slices of the electorate.

This notion of slices of the electorate is not new, but it's dominance in election strategy is now pre-eminent. This is particularly true in the U.S., where the Presidential election is less a national one and more one which is comprised of several swing state battles, and a general focus on attracting support from a very small number of independents and undecideds.

In this regard, Mr. Romney's remarks - once you strip away the ugliness, elitism and most distasteful elements of modern conservatism embedded within them - are consistent with how all parties approach a campaign.  Get out your base and focus on those areas which can deliver the very thing you set out to achieve - power.

For Mr. Romney, the challenges associated with a twin focus on base and swing voters are great. In order to appeal to and mobilize his base he must tack heavily towards the right.  In order to appeal to independents and undecideds, he must appear more moderate.

Put another way, how he approaches the one can very easily alienate the other.  It is precisely the type of tightrope-walk that can lead a candidate to give one message on the hustings and another behind closed doors.

Mr. Romney fell off that tightrope this week.  The coming weeks will tell how damaging a fall this has been.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Those were the days...

Over the years there has been a fair bit written about Stephen Harper's long-held goal of not just over-taking the Liberals, but of consigning them to the dustbin of history. Now, as we begin the countdown to the Liberal spring 2013 leadership convention we can expect more of such chatter.

What sometimes gets lost in this Harper versus the Liberals narrative is the fact that should Mr. Harper succeed in forever vanquishing the former "natural governing party", it will mark the second time he has taken on and mortally wounded one of the federal parties.

The first victim? The federal Progressive Conservative party.


The death this past week of Peter Lougheed prompted a number of articles about his legacy, including this excellent one by Jeffrey Simpson.  

What struck me in reading these tributes was the number of sharp distinctions between what it used to mean to be a PC, and what it currently means to be a Conservative. The articles served as a reminder that there once was a time when the words progressive and conservative did not appear mutually exclusive; that there was a sense that government had a real role to play in the pursuit of the greater good.

More than anything, we remembered that good policy can and should be driven by both conviction and evidence. Facts and principles can exist side-by-side in our decision-making process. This was an approach that enabled Mr. Lougheed to govern for so long, so successfully. It was an approach that allowed the modern Alberta to emerge on the national scene.


The PC party of Mr. Lougheed does not exist at the federal level any more, and nor does the notion of a red Tory.  His federal heirs, if you will - politicians like Clark and Stanfield - and the values and approach to public service that they represented are long gone.  

In their place is the current Conservative party.  A party defined and moulded by Prime Minister Harper.  The current brand of conservatism is more principle-driven, relying less on facts and data.  More importantly, it represents an approach to politics and policy-making that is more adversarial; where accommodation and collaboration are rare and are too often portrayed as signs of weakness.

It is also an approach that has gradually started to erode the concept of the "centre", transforming the national political dialogue into a choice between two extremes.  

Unfortunately by making federal politics a "battle of opposites", as Mr. Harper has tried to do, policy debate starts to mirror the political landscape. When "what if?" is replaced by "either, or", innovation and the bigger sense of country are lost.


Over the course of the summer Canadians have been inundated with reminders about the war of 1812. The government's objective is to bring greater visibility to our military history, and to develop a national sense of pride in that history.

These are noble endeavours, without question. However, there is a certain irony in celebrating our military history while at the same time ignoring the principles and approach to politics that quite simply allowed a country like Canada to exist.

Canada is a nation that was born out of compromise, collaboration and a sense that if you wanted to make something truly special, at some point you had to leave your interests at the door and think of the big picture.

Mr. Lougheed understood that. We could do with more like him.     

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Quebec ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Well, kind of.

The Quebec election campaign is in full swing and at this point it's fair to ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Well, kind of.

You see, we have what has become commonplace in all recent Quebec elections - that being the traditional Liberal-Parti Quebecois battle for the hearts, minds and votes of the province.  This is a dynamic which produces a remarkably consistent narrative.

On one side is the PQ, promising to stand-up to protect, defend and grow the Quebec project.  It is a rhetoric steeped in cultural and economic nationalism, with the end goal being the establishment of an independent Quebec.

On the other side are the Liberals, promising to effectively manage and modernize the province while at the same time offering stability and protection from the uncertainty of the separation debate.

Only this time around, we have a third party - and an interesting one at that.  The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), led by former PQ member François Legault, has arrived and is shaking things up.  Theirs is an agenda which says put separation aside for at least a decade and focus on getting Quebec's house in order.

In many respects it is an agenda which is more frank about the challenges Quebec faces and the need for the province to engage in a more meaningful dialogue about what to do.  Importantly, it is arguing for a dialogue that is unencumbered by the federalist vs. separatist noose that has been around the province's neck and which has choked off real debate and action.

The question now is whether Legault's CAQ can truly build itself into a viable third option, or whether it will suffer the fate of the ADQ (which it effectively absorbed) and simply fade away after showing early promise.  Interestingly, unlike the ADQ the CAQ has three things that point to more than a fighting chance at survival.

1. A desire for change - part one.  Federalist Quebeckers who have felt that they have nowhere to go but to the Liberals now have a choice.  Legault is not a federalist, but he is offering stability.  As well, for those who would favour a more business-minded approach to the management of the province, the CAQ offers a perspective which in some respects is more Liberal than PQ.

2. A desire for change - part two.  Quebec is changing.  Legault is a former PQ Cabinet Minister.  He was a PQ MNA as recently as 2009.  That he has managed, thus far, to successfully present himself as something other than a pequiste speaks volumes about the mood in the province.  Legault is attempting to tap into a desire for something new, something different and something that is not Charest or Marois.  So far he is succeeding.

3. The corruption wild card.  The Charest mandate(s) have increasingly been tainted by the spectre of corruption.  The CAQ's ability to draft the most public opponent of corruption - Jacques Duchesneau - as its star candidate has immediately branded it as the anti-corruption party and the one most willing to clean things up.

We are still early days in this campaign.  The debates are still to come.  As well, the electoral map of Quebec gives the PQ several significant advantages once you move outside of the Montreal area.  Still, thus far the CAQ is showing and making things interesting.  At the very least, Mr. Legault could find himself in the position of king/queen-maker.

Watch and see who attacks who as we move into this middle-period of the campaign.  More than any poll you will read, where leader's direct their attention will tell you volumes about what is keeping them up at night.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nothing to fear but fear itself...

Here's a little secret that all parties know. The politics of fear can be extremely effective. It does not matter whether you are Conservative, NDP or Liberal; whether you are swimming in the federal pool or the provincial one.

Fear is a motivator. It drives engagement. And it mobilizes those most likely to vote.

Fear is what helped keep back the Reform / Canadian Alliance / Conservatives during the Chrétien-Martin years. I recall a Maclean's cover which pictured Stockwell Day and the caption "How Scary?" It was an image that played squarely into the Liberal narrative about what a Day government might look like.

Fear also helped Mr. Martin get his minority in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. The final days of the 2004 campaign saw the Liberals again employ the not-so-subtle tactic of suggesting the worst would come from a Harper government. Call it "How Scary? Chapter 2."

Of course, after 2006 the tables were gradually turned. While both the Liberals and the NDP continued  to sound the alarm about a hidden Conservative agenda (something which arguably helped keep the Conservatives away from majority territory for 5 years), the Harper government began its own attack.

It started with Mr. Dion and the spectre of the carbon tax. However, it took that "coalition crisis" to demonstrate the degree to which the government was prepared to play the fear card. The "threat" of the so-called "Separatist-Socialist" coalition grew from a clarion call in defence of prorogation to the ongoing mantra of the government whenever it faced criticism from the opposition. This carried right through to the election of 2011.


While the Liberals had used fear and the defining of the unknown to help frame a narrative, the Conservatives took it further.  Changes to the party financing laws in Canada made the individual donor a critical ally for anyone with hopes of power.

The Conservatives recognized this more quickly than their opponents. Importantly, they also recognized that fear brings in money. It mobilizes your base and rallies them (and their wallets) to act. There are a lot of reasons why the Conservatives are more effective fundraisers, chief of which is the database they have developed and maintained.

However, the ability to use wedge issues - think carbon taxes, gun registries, coalitions - should not be underestimated as a critical skill for generating engagement and filling party coffers.


I have written on this blog about the election around the corner and how it stifled policy debate in Canada; how it drove our political discourse away from substance and towards sound bites. The politics of fear has had the same effect.

Today we see the Conservatives employing these tactics against Mr. Mulcair. Over the next year we will see both the NDP and the Conservatives use them against the Liberals and whomever winds up leading them. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Right now there seems to be a growing interest in the need to facilitate non-partisan discourse. Martha Hall Findlay's recent piece on supply management is a good example of the importance of taking partisanship away from serious issues. Interestingly, it often seems that former politicians are the most vocal about the need to change the tone and focus of our politics.

Canadians have a small window within which to seize the opportunity afforded them by a Conservative majority. With no election until 2015 or so, there is time to start to define what a less fear-driven politics can look like.

This will take time, and there will most certainly be no immediate pay-off at the polls.  It will take small steps, patience and perseverance. And make no mistake, it will be attacked.

But it is the right thing to do if we want to break the cycle. Right now, to borrow from the phrase, fear is the thing we should be most fearful of.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Leadership and Brand Go Hand in Hand

This week the Liberal Party of Canada announced that its convention for selecting a new, permanent leader would be held in April 2013. In the hours before this decision was made, Bob Rae - the current interim leader and at the time the presumptive favourite for the full-time job - announced that he would not seek the job.

Cue more existential discussion about the former natural governing party of Canada.

Attention has inevitably shifted towards Justin Trudeau - the man some are now saying is the party's last, best chance at picking itself up and re-inventing itself as a player in in Canadian politics.

I read through two articles which came out today on the subject. The first was by Warren Kinsella and the second by Rex Murphy. Both make the argument that Trudeau should run, albeit for different reasons.

Kinsella's argument seems to be based almost exclusively on the notoriety factor; that the name recognition and pedigree of Trudeau are sufficient to make him the party's first and only choice in what is likely to be a less than inspiring field. In short, his view is that Trudeau has the characteristics of a winner.

While Murphy also suggests Trudeau should run, he argues this from a completely different position.  To him, a refusal to run could potentially be the final nail in the coffin in a party that has now failed to convince your McKennas, Manleys and Tobins to seek the crown. A Trudeau refusal would be seen as a confirmation by the party elite that it has no future.

So, we have Kinsella saying the party must pick Trudeau and Murphy saying Trudeau should pick the party.

What's missing is a good discussion about what this party would represent.

The arguments thus far have tended to focus on the need to avoid the pitfalls that previous leader selections - Dion and Ignatieff - created. Without question, leadership is critical. A major element of the leader's job is to be the symbol and spokesperson of the party's brand.

And there's the rub.

For a party to succeed it needs an effective leader (the symbol / spokesperson) and a brand - those characteristics which it embodies. Unfortunately, the current Liberal debate is focused almost exclusively on the former, with limited discussion on the latter.

I believe that over time the sentiment that the Liberals were Canada's natural governing party became something of an albatross around the neck. Gradually it stifled thought and fostered an ever-growing sense of entitlement.

Post-2006, the party seemed to rely on the sense that electoral defeat was akin to time in the penalty box; that after they served their time out of power, they would get back in and that things would return to their rightful place.

What they did not recognize is that while they were in the penalty box the game changed.

Even now, six years removed from power and demoted to the third rung on the political ladder, the party is not doing enough to define itself. A failure to define itself in the old Liberal-Tory political axis is one thing. To do it today with the ascendant NDP is something altogether different. And dangerous.

The Liberals need more than a leader. They need an identity. They need to clearly articulate what they represent as a 21st century progressive political party. This means being definitive about yourself and purposely drawing distinctions between yourself and the other parties.

The further you are from power, the more important it is that you get your decisions on leadership and brand correct. The clock is now ticking for the Liberals.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shifting right or tuning out?

One of the questions that has been asked with some frequency by politics watchers is whether Canada is growing more conservative. Whether over time, we have moved away from our more traditional centre and towards the right.

While this might be a fair question to ask, I am not sure it is the right one.  The problem with a question like this is that it leads to somewhat narrow answers which offer limited perspective.

The answer many offer is that three election victories for the Conservatives is hard evidence that the country is more aligned with Mr. Harper's policies than those of his opponents.  Proponents of this argument also point to not just three victories, but three increasingly stronger results culminating in the May 2011 majority.

Fair points, yes.  But surely there is more for us to consider as we ponder whether the country is shifting right.
  • The progressive alternative has been splintered as the Liberals have fallen and the NDP have grown.  This game is still playing out, and as a result the Conservatives have been able to capitalize.  The combination of a fractured opposition and the first-past-the-post system have worked for Harper in much the same it did for Chretien, particularly in Ontario.
  • Building on the point above, Mr. Harper strongly benefitted from not one but two ineffective Liberal leaders.  Yes, the vicious Conservative attack ads contributed to the ineffectiveness of Dion and Ignatieff.  However, that these ads were "complemented" by a Liberal reluctance or inability to define oneself as a credible option should not be overlooked.
  • The Conservatives were highly adept at using the financial crisis as a platform for success.  First, they were essentially implored to spend - which they did in spades, thereby being able to legitimately wear the moniker of the government that steered Canada through "the worst crisis since the Great Depression." Second, as the global political winds have shifted and spending made way for austerity the Conservatives have gained a degree of legitimacy for the shrinkage of government they have always favoured.  Imagine being able to look out an ask rhetorically "do you want us to be like the EU?".  
These points are less about whether we are shifting right or left, and more about a lack of defined alternatives combined with a very unique and shifting "crisis environment."  And yet even then, I think there is something more that explains what we have seen over the past several years that goes beyond an ideological shift.

It is not that people have shifted right, it is that people have increasingly tuned out.

Our politics is more partisan.  It is more sound-bite driven.  There is less policy being discussed.  Parliament is by-passed at the earliest convenience and with greater frequency.  And every day that this happens, more and more people tune out and try to get on with their lives.

In the end, I think the better question to ask is not whether we are shifting right, but whether we are paying close enough attention to what is going on around us.  And by "we" I don't mean those of trapped inside of the bubble of Ottawa (or those outside, but fixated on those within it).

To say Canada is shifting is to say that Canadians are engaged.  We are not.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Perils of Being Painted Into a Corner

If you live in Quebec, over the past several weeks you have been treated to daily reporting of the student protests against the Charest government's plans to eliminate a freeze on tuition. The issue has claimed one Minister and a Chief of Staff to the Premier, with thousands of students taking to the streets to voice their anger.

Students, eh? That crazy lot.

The cost of post-secondary education is an important issue. It is well-understood that a modern economy needs an educated workforce; a work force that is able to compete and succeed in what is a rapidly changing global environment.

However, when I look at the protests and consider the issue I am drawn towards another angle. Tuition rates in Quebec have been significantly lower than in the rest of Canada for several years. There have been no increases of note in over a decade. In fact governments of both stripes have patted themselves on the back for maintaining a freeze and derided those who suggested otherwise.

As a result, the issue has been politicized to such an extent that both the Liberals and the PQ have been painted into a corner. Reasonable debate about the province's ability to maintain a strong post-secondary system take a back seat to ever-escalating rhetoric.

There is a lesson in all of this for the other provinces and the federal government.

I see a parallel between this issue and the issue of tax increases. More and more we see the use of the tax system being pilloried and attacked. The party that proposes any form of tax increase is attacked, and often backs away from their proposals regardless of their initial merit.

Taxes fund public services.  Some of those are very visible, such as health care.  Others less so, but they remain important (defence, food safety, research).  Is there waste in the system?  Without question.   But the fact remains that taxes are a very important tool which governments use to govern and sustain the state.

Unfortunately, Canada seems to be following the path of the United States where the Republican Party has made an art of anti-tax rhetoric and policy.  As I noted here, the U.S. has "effectively taken off of the table one of the major tools available to a government to manage the affairs of the state."

Should Canada mirror the U.S. example and stigmatize taxes to such an extent that no one dare mention them unless the propose a reduction, then we will be depriving ourselves of real and important debate on what we can and cannot afford; about what we are willing to pay for and what we are not.

Quebec politicians have painted themselves into a corner; a corner which the Charest government is desperately trying to get out from - for the right reasons.  The system is simply not sustainable with the freeze in place.  Yet this conversation is getting lost in the noise, and more's the pity.

Across Canada we should take heed and consider the implications of extremes.  We should ask ourselves whether a debate on taxes is being avoided or stifled.  We should be challenging ourselves to think ahead and consider the corner we could paint ourselves into tomorrow if we avoid the difficult conversations today.

Students.  You can learn a lot from them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Time Out...Back in Time

The passage of time is something that always fascinates us. Time flies. Where did the time go? Time out. Time heals all wounds. It's about time.

In recent weeks we have been treated to some observations about the passage of time...

- the Titanic sank 100 years ago;
- the Alberta Progressive Conservatives are in danger of losing their 40-year grip on power;
- the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is 30 years old;
- the one-year anniversary of the Harper majority is 12 days away; and
- your favourite political blogger has not posted in 53 days.

While certainly not the most important of these milestones, the last one - my break from blogging - is the one I want to take a moment to write about.

In the run-up to my break, the conversations of politics watchers were filled with references to robo-calls and dirty tricks. The general observation - mine included - was that our politics was in a state of perpetual decline, characterized by hyper-partisanship on the Hill and a decided lack of engagement everywhere else.

While I believe that observation to be correct, I nevertheless found it to be gnawing at me and not just influencing what I wrote about, but how I wrote. One thing I have always tried to do with this blog is remain outside of the fray. While I am progressive in mindset, it has always been important for me to retain a level of objectivity in my writing.

I started to find this difficult, so I took a break.

In taking a time out, I wanted to step back and start to look at our politics from more of a distance. Away from the partisanship and the scandals, real and imagined.

More to the point, I wanted to take some time to remind myself why I started writing in the first place.

The purpose has always been to promote a dialogue and foster a greater sense of engagement in our politics. This means looking at the issues that will define Canada. It also means taking a critical eye to all of our political protagonists, regardless of their affiliation.

So where does that leave us, dear reader (yes...I still cling to the illusion that someone reads this blog)? Hopefully right back where we started when this blog began. With the issues and the challenges and opportunities Canada is facing.

Our cast has changed (welcome Mr. Mulcair), but the issues have not (hello austerity, jets, deficits, and provinces...good to see you again). So let's re-start the dialogue by reminding ourselves that engagement is like oxygen to a healthy, well-functioning democracy. It is critical.

And it's time.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Robocalls: Making the Case for Engagement

Much has been written over the past few days about the use of robocalls, particularly during the 2011 federal election. We have all had them. Usually during dinner. Their timing is great...#sarcasm

At the heart of the story are a growing number of allegations that robocalls were targeted at Liberal and NDP voters in swing ridings, informing them that the polling station had changed. These calls have been traced to a company in Edmonton with ties to the Conservative party.

At this time it is not clear who was responsible for these calls, nor whether they were part of a Conservative party-orchestrated plan to mislead or disenfranchise those who would typically vote for other parties (text vetted by crack team of A Guy Watching Politics lawyers). However, should the allegations be proven it would not bode well for the image of the Conservative party.

Now let's be honest with one another. There is no real chance that anything will change on the Hill between now and the next federal election. We will not re-cast our votes, regardless of how any debate or investigation might play out.

Yes, the government could be embarrassed. Potentially people could lose their jobs, and perhaps face criminal charges. But the government will remain the government until as late as 2016.


If you were the government and you had to choose when to have a scandal emerge, this would be the time. Unlike the Auditor General findings which unleashed the sponsorship scandal in the later years of a Liberal mandate, this issue comes at the beginning of a Conservative one. All to say, they have time on their side.

This is where you come in, dear voter.

These allegations are part of a pattern; a pattern of a party which remains in perpetual campaign mode. As much as the election around the corner flowed from successive minority Parliaments, it also flowed from a Conservative government which has never seemed able to resist its more base, partisan instincts.

It is also a pattern characterized by an avoidance of accountability and a rejection of the principles upon which the Conservative party first successfully won power - accountability, transparency, and the elimination of scandal from Ottawa.

This is why we need to remain engaged. These issues are not just about things that happen in Ottawa.

- Misleading voters about the plans of a sitting MP is, in the Speaker's words, reprehensible.
- Labelling opponents of legislation with child pornographers is despicable.
- And supporting (or turning a blind eye) to efforts to disenfranchise those would vote against you is borderline criminal.

The government is not going to change between now and 2016. But we can. We need to be more vigilant and engaged. The voter should not fall victim to the idiom that time heals all wounds; that in four years time no one will remember or care.

We need to challenge ourselves to define what we expect of government, and then explore all efforts to hold government to account. This is what engagement means.

Thank-you robocalls for the reminder.
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