Fear Begets Panic: Lessons in Credit-Crunch Campaigning

By Jared Wesley on Oct 9, 2008

The Economist weighed in on the Canadian election today, with two separate articles offering a lukewarm endorsement of the Conservatives.  Specifically, the authors suggest "another minority Conservative government would not be a bad result for Canada: neither of the main party leaders has done enough to persuade Canadians that they deserve untrammelled power." 

On one hand, Stephen Harper has shown "a disappointing lack of leadership" in dismissing his opponents' plans as 'stupid' and 'crazy,' which "is grounds enough to deny the Conservatives a majority."  Meanwhile,  "If the voters go further and eject Mr Harper, that, sadly, will not be because they have been convinced by the cerebral Mr Dion’s worthy carbon tax. It will be because the opposition... has succeeded in panicking the voters on the economy (see article)." 

They continue, adding, "Mr Harper says, rightly enough, that his government has taken prudent measures to help Canada weather a storm it cannot duck: he has offered tax cuts and selective aid to help vulnerable manufacturing towns. But it is his seeming non-reaction to what is so far a non-crisis that looks likely to deny him the majority he was seeking, and could even let in the opposition. In what is the first credit-crunch election in a big Western country, Mr Harper’s ejection would set a dispiriting precedent that panic plays better politically than prudence."

The Economist and other Conservative supporters forget one thing, however.  It was Harper who introduced the economy as the ballot question in this election.  As mentioned earlier on this blog, the Tories surrounded the campaign with a frame of uncertainty.  By failing to balance the need for prime ministerial confidence in a time of crisis, on one hand, while projecting compassion and worry, on the other, the Tories soon lost control of the campaign discourse.   

The entire process invited -- indeed, almost baited -- the opposition to produce plans of government intervention.  (Not "boardroom, Bay Street bailouts" like those south of the border, but "kitchen table," "mainstreet" solutions.)  In short, Harper's campaign of fear begat the opposition's politics of panic

In this sense, The Economist is wrong in attributing Harper's loss to some socialist bias in the Canadian political culture.  "It is not easy to be a successful Conservative in Canada," they argue.  "Perhaps it is because the country was founded on the collectivist principles of 'peace, order and good government' rather than the individualist 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' of its neighbour. Perhaps it is because the things that Canadians most value about their country are its publicly run health service, its European-style welfare state and its tolerance. All are associated with the Liberals, who have been the natural party of government in Canada for the past century...  So perhaps it is not surprising that the hopes of Stephen Harper... may end up being dashed." 

If Canadians do, indeed, opt for the latter on October 14th, the result will have as much to do with the Conservatives strategic errors as te electorate's penchant for left-wing security.     

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