Monday, February 28, 2005

Harper Tactics Revisited

Just a followup to my budget comments of early Saturday morning, with a clarification of sorts on my original thoughts. Aside from a focus on the many particulars [well set out by McNair in a welcome return to posting - though I certainly wasn't complaining about the reason for his absence, namely the ladies he kept bringing to "our" corner of Tiger Tiger these past 2 Saturdays], the crux of the political analysis does seem focused largely on Harper's response. The question remains: should his original instinct to withold on the attacks be seen as savvy, reasoned, and tactically effective, or has he just gifted the Liberals a free pass when he should be making them sweat?

The blogosphere's reaction is divided, pretty well down the line, with some praising Harper's political acumen and others calling his moves just plain dumb. There's some good discussion in the comments to a post at This Magazine on Kinsella's original comments (where even Warren himself enters the fray) and some summary of pundit reaction from Chantal Hebert to Andrew Coyne.

All of which is to say that I am still inclined to the view that Harper's reaction to the 2005 budget has everything to do with positioning for 2006, when the country will be ready for an election. Alex is of course right to comment below that the Tories are in no position (financial or policywise) to even credibly threaten an election today. Since everyone can see his cards, bluffing now would be ridiculously ineffective. If we take the view that the budget, a minority feel-good catchall of goodies spread around judiciously, will generally be viewed positively, Tory carping just feeds the narrative that they continue to fail the "mainstream" test.

Jason commented that "to the average Canadian, [Harper] seems like a fiscal liberal and social conservative - exactly where the Conservatives do not want to be." Respectfully, I have to disagree. Harper's biggest problem is the perception that the Tories are not MODERATE enough to be trusted with the keys to 24 Sussex. Hence the need for the kindler, gentler approach now. Such tactics also have the benefit of helping Layton's criticism of Martin-as-Conservative-in-Liberal-clothing stick. Which shouldn't bother Harper in the least, because any leftwing Liberal support that bleeds orange next time will only make life easier for the Tories in our first-past-the-post system. And if the sponsorship scandal ends up having any legs at all, Harper can point to his frankness and honesty in not playing games with what people see as an acceptable budget as counterpoint to Liberal duplicity.

Furthermore, I guess I just don't see this move as ceding credibility on the economy to the Libs down the line. Everyone knows that a Conservative government would go further on tax cuts and debt reduction, so there's no danger in acceding to the compromises drawn up at this exact moment. Again, the key to all this will be the specific context for the 2006 budget, and criticism then will be all the more effective when Harper can say that he has demonstrated an ability to be reasonable in the past. Let them have their little honeymoon for now, for a year is an eternity in this kind of waiting game...

One final note on tactics - after all, really my main point was the absurdity of Kinsella's attempt to compare the tactics that worked for the Natural-Governing Liberal opposition up against an unpopular Conservative party to the dynamics and complexities of this particular minority situation. Harper did have another alternative that might have straddled the line between acceptance and credibility, one where he could have displayed the ability to flex some muscle if necessary. Check out this post from Let it Bleed. The money quote:
Here's what should have happened: the budget gets released. No Conservative says one. frickin'. word. "No comment". "We're reviewing it". "We'll get back to you". That's it. Jack Layton mewls about how he doesn't like the budget, and says he is going to vote against it. The Bloc complains about the budget not being in the interests of Quebecers and indicates it will not support it. Still no word from the Tories. Perfect. Why? Because the Tories have just changed the focus from "what's in the budget?" to "what are the Conservatives going to do about it?" The headlines write themselves.

Interesting take. Read the whole scenario. Ultimately, I just don't think keeping all this in the news (while other signs of the inefficient, incoherent ditherings of the government were prominently on display in the media instead - again, see Wells for the takedown of Martin's bumbling of the Missile Defence decision) would have been terribly helpful. Harper is merely biding his time, readying his troops for a gathering storm. And waiting for some decent cards that will allow him to confidently get his chips into the pot.


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