Dion's big gamble

Liberal leader is betting a leftist platform will draw votes from the NDP

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Stéphane Dion promises a "collision of ideas" at the next election, vowing to take the Liberals to the left, in sharp contrast to the hidden right-wing agenda of Stephen Harper, soulmate of George W. Bush.

This could work for Dion on two levels. First, he is trying to remind voters on the left that when they support the NDP or the Greens, they get the Conservatives and the hidden agenda. It's an old trick, but an effective one - scare progressive voters back into line. As in: Jack Layton asked you to lend your votes to the NDP, "just this once," and look what you got: Harper. That's a pretty good line.

Second, any campaign that's about contrasting ideas would play to Dion's relative strength as an intellectual with strong convictions, and would downplay his disadvantage on leadership.

That disadvantage is more than significant, it's huge, as indicated by a new poll on leadership from Nanos Research. Pollster Nik Nanos measured three key leadership attributes last week - trust, competence and vision - and on all of them Dion finished well behind Harper and even behind Layton on two of them.

The core attribute for measuring any leader as a prime minister is competence. And here, Harper enjoys an advantage over Dion of almost 4-1. In the Nanos poll, 39 per cent said Harper was the most competent leader, to 13 per cent for Layton and only 11 per cent for Dion. Stated another way, only one Canadian in 10 sees Dion as the most competent leader.

Asked which leader was the most trustworthy, 35 per cent said Harper, 14 per cent chose Layton and only 12 per cent thought Dion was the best.

As to which leader had the best vision of Canada, Harper came in first at 35 per cent, with Layton and Dion tied at 15 per cent.

Interestingly, these leadership numbers correspond within the margin of error to the voting intention for the Conservatives in all the polls in the mid-to-high 30s, and for the NDP in the mid-teens.

But Dion trails the Liberals in voting intention by about 20 points on competence and trust, and at least 15 points on vision. He is a huge drag on the ticket. There is no other way to read these numbers.

Leadership is so important in a campaign because a campaign is all about the leader. You can wrap the leader in the party brand, and the Liberal brand is by far the strongest and most resilient in Canada, especially in Ontario. You can surround the leader with the team, and the Liberal team includes some attractive figures, such as Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. But you can't hide the leader. He is the centre of a national tour, with his every move dissected and deconstructed by a national press that thrives on stumbles and gaffes.

He is the star of the leaders' debates, the critical event at mid-campaign when the voters start to pay serious attention. Dion isn't a bad debater, he's good at scoring points, but he's not a good performer, particularly in English, and performance is the measurement.

Can Dion overcome his leadership deficit with a strong campaign of ideas? Well, at least it's the makings of a game plan, something the Liberals have been conspicuously lacking up to now.

But the danger for the Liberals is that in the absence of a policy framework - and this party still hasn't had a policy convention since its defeat nearly two years ago - the leader will have permission to make it up as he goes along.

Dion's tactical sense is clearly to crowd the NDP and Greens on the left, and bring home strategic voters who have drifted away from the Liberals by reminding them Harper is a scary clone of Dubya.

Thus, Dion's anti-poverty plan last month, which proposed a modest reduction of poverty levels over five years, greatly annoyed both the NDP and the Bloc, who like to think they have a monopoly on this kind of virtue. Dion also is positioning himself as the champion, and the Liberals as the party, of the Charter. Charter values, in this line of logic, are not only Canadian values, but explicitly Liberal values.

As for Scary Steve, Bush's bro, that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Harper has been prime minister for nearly two years, and he just doesn't look scary, he looks normal, the father of a young family who happens to have a very good job with the government.

As for Bush, he's on the way out. After the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries next month, Bush will be out of the picture. His name won't be on the ballot in the United States, much less in Canada.

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