Friday, April 22, 2005

Assessing the Actors

I too was foiled by the unexpected Blogger shut down last night, and have been busy today with a tutorial on EU treaty-making powers. Did get to watch the entire performance last night courtesy of CPAC, so here's my belated take on Martin and a comment on the replies:

(1) Martin: As good as his fellow Liberals could have hoped, given the circumstances. His delivery and the speech content were superb (especially by his standards) and he did it all without looking too partisan.

But, it could never be enough. His problems here are all in the subtext of the occasion. Why was he forced to address the nation under such unprecedented circumstances? The Sun's Linda Williamson masterfully nails him on the point. And why is it so imporant to wait until Gomery reports? As Andrew Coyne writes:
"I have said since the scandal broke that everything Mr. Martin said or did in the way of presenting himself as the solution, rather than the problem, was belied by a single, fateful choice: his decision to call a snap election last spring, before anyone had any idea how far the corruption spread, or whether members of his own camp were part of it -- before, indeed, the Gomery inquiry had heard a single witness.

That underlying contradiction has only grown since then, and it was significant to see Stephen Harper, no fool, home in on it in his response. Mr. Martin now says there should be no election until after the Gomery inquiry has reported? It’s a little late."

As for the pledge itself? Frankly, I was surprised that many reported it as a bold one. The idea never really crossed my mind, partly due to the fact that it seems absurd to contemplate a PM in a minority successfully setting the agenda on the future timing of an election in precisely this way. He doesn't have control anyway. If he had taken Paul Tuns' advice over at the shotgun and declared an election in May after the witnesses concluded, now THAT would have been bold.

Also: Paul Wells is right that the comparison to Jean Chretien is irony in the extreme. "Hey, I'm retiring.... in a year and a half." Heh. [side note: if, as Wells thinks, the PM's pledge successfully avoids an election - it won't - then I must remember to try that the next time I am about to get kicked out of a bar: "You are too drunk, you have to leave," says the bouncer. "Okay," I'll drunkenly slur. "I'm on my way. In another hour or so."]

In brief, a great performance in a losing effort. After the first dozen callers phoned in to CPAC all expressing negative opinions, one of the hosts was reduced to begging supporters of Martin to call in with their views. Of course it is an unrepresentative sample. But it tells you something.

(2) Harper: I think Harper struck the right tone. He does need to proceed carefully (okay, I was wrong in comments below) but he is seems to be doing a good job of looking exasperated as opposed to angry. We are going to see a lot of these talking points return in the coming months. Especially the following:

"Mr. Martin received his mandate by holding an election before any of the facts of the sponsorship scandal were known. Last May, it was Mr. Martin's decision to shut down the public accounts committee in its attempt to get to the truth. It was Mr. Martin's decision to call an election last year before a single witness had been heard by Justice Gomery. And it was Mr. Martin's decision to turn a blind eye to it all when he was minister of finance.

Do Canadians really believe that the number two man in a government now under a cloud of corruption, is the person to clean up that mess today? Do Canadians really believe that the Gomery inquiry would be operating if the Liberals had won a majority? And do you really believe that the Liberals will ultimately prosecute themselves, and hold their own to account?

I don't believe that. I don't think you believe that."

I found he came across as considerably strong: live, bilingual, and returning to answer questions - stark contrast to the PM holed up in a room and delivering it cowardly on tape (how many takes, I wonder?) Was he too "mean"? I think it was important to be tough. The time for conversation with the electorate is when the campaign is under way. Last night, he just needed to keep the focus on the desperation. Judging by the next day's press, mission accomplished.

Also, it may have been a reflection of the opposition performance in general (or just a measure of the PMO's miscalculation) that initially they were just going to let the statement speak for itself, but after the opposition leaders spoke, Stephane Dion was unleashed on the cameras. At least that what CPAC said. Oh, are we going to need that guy in the months to come!

(3) Duceppe: the line of the night and the quote of the friday -
"La dernière fois qu'un Premier ministre canadien s'est adressé à vous à la télévision, c'était en 1995, à l'occasion du référendum sur la souveraineté. Jean Chrétien l'avait fait pour sauver le Canada. Paul Martin le fait pour sauver le Parti libéral du Canada."

That is so devastating precisely because it is so true. Nothing more to say about that guy. If the gossip is true, he'll soon be the leader of the PQ, Premier of Quebec, and enemy #1 for all of us.

(4) Layton: I joined the NDP during the last leadership race precisely to vote for Layton (a membership I let lasp immediately to preserve "independent" political status) in the belief that the party needed rejuvenation that the likes of stalwarts such as Blaikie and Nystrom simply couldn't provide, to hold right-leaning Liberals to account. During that race, I was consistently impressed by him - articulate, persuasive, seeking out a moderate tone. He seemed to know the weaknesses of the party and was willing to address them in a competent way.

His performance last night exemplified his best and worst qualities. The approach was correct - address the cynicism, lament the non-progress on popular issues (though did he have to go into such detail?). Mentioning Alexa, Broadbent, Blaikie was particularly solid - hopefully all four respected parliamentarians can play a prominent role in an election that will be dominated by ethics.

BUT... Layton's presentation just doesn't seem authentic somehow. Maybe he repeats stock phrases too often or just the "I'm always outraged. Outraged" persona. And on that front, his weasling "let's make a deal" approach disturbs me greatly. Of course I realize that negotiations should be taking place, and also that a deal might make good sense for the NDP in the short term. But bartering so openly on the air, in such specificity? Under the guise of what "Canadians want"? It reeks of an opinion that: "I think you are corrupt, but hey, if you give me what I want then great, we'll worry about that other stuff later." Fine if you want to appeal to a very specific portion of your core vote, but he should be setting his sights higher. He must act more diplomatically in the coming weeks if he is to avoid getting trapped in this wedge.

Bottom line: Did much change? Don't think so. We still seem headed toward an election that the Liberals are going to have a hard time winning. Any moral authority Martin may have gained in his statement was more than offset by the opportunity provided to the opposition. But that's my opinion - maybe (likely) the paradigm swing voter sees it all differently. We'll see.


Blogger Jason Cherniak said...

Letters on the National tonight were 3-1 in Martin's favour. My impression is that this is a repeat of the debate last year - everyone thought Martin lost until they saw the public reaction. People really feel sorry for the guy getting attacked all the time. As a person who tends to be lecuturing in politics, I have learned personally that being negative fails 9 times out of 10. MacDuff, it only worked for you because you were already convinced.

Harper's best chance would have been to take all the advice that was being given Martin. Instead, he went to personal attacks - just what we all decided Martin had to avoid at all costs. This will cost him big time.

11:40 PM  
Blogger The Tiger said...

Jason --

Re the debates last year -- utter nonsense. The media called it a draw, but their polls of voters showed a plurality thought that Harper won the debates. What helped the Liberals and killed him was when they went on the attack soon after -- that ad with the tanks and the gun and the dissolving maple leaf.

Negative campaigning, when based on policies and when not strongly contradicted, works.

As for the speeches -- we'll see. I do think Martin gained a bit, but I want to see polls taken a week from now, to see which way the wind is blowing.

1:00 AM  
Blogger The Tiger said...

Oh, and yes, to echo MacDuff, I don't think Harper was overly negative in his rebuttal to the PM's speech. I think he said things that needed saying, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum.

1:04 AM  

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