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Iggy’s – so far – excellent adventure

Posted by padams under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Media commentary, Media Commentary, Political Strategy

Paul Adams

During the last week of the 2008 election campaign, a news photographer caught a humorous scene. Stéphane Dion, whose campaign was foundering, was sitting on a television news set. Behind him was a weather graphic: five days of unremitting dark clouds and pouring rain ahead.

Dion was a complete innocent in this embarrassing photo of course: a hapless victim of a clever photographer. Even Robert Stanfield actually had to fumble the football before his cringing-inducing moment was plastered on the front page of the Globe and Mail. What the photographers had done in both cases, though, was to find a symbolic pictorial representation of a broader media perception about the success of the candidates and their campaigns.

This morning I arrived a little late to see Michael Ignatieff make an announcement on his day care policy at a pre-school in Winnipeg South (the constituency I grew up in, as it happens). I had not seen Ignatieff at a political event in person for about a year, and what surprised me was his obvious comfort and self-confidence. He seemed like he was enjoying himself, which has not always been a given for Ignatieff in his time as leader.

When he poked at the prime minister, saying that “you can’t trust this man”, it didn’t have the overheated feel of Stephen Harper’s election announcement at Rideau Hall; nor did it have the robotic feel of a man who has studiously practiced his attack lines.

Ignatieff, who has often been diffident and stiff in the past, seemed perfectly comfortable in his skin: genuinely frustrated with Harper, it seemed, but not emotionally destabilized by it.

He seemed – dare I say it? – prime ministerial.

This perception, which seems generally shared by the media travelling with Ignatieff, fits exactly with the media narrative described in the post by Elly Alboim earlier today. See also, Paul Wells’ cover story in this weeks Macleans.

Of course none of this is accident. Ignatieff has been carefully groomed to get to this position by Peter Donolo, his chief of staff and former Chrétien communications advisor. Donolo, who inherited a Liberal leader who had been badly shaken during his first year in that office, started Ignatieff’s recuperation with baby steps: putting him in familiar circumstances during a speaking tour of university campuses, for example. Last summer, Donolo dispatched him on a cross-Canada tour. Ignatieff didn’t get a bump in the polls, which some analysts mistakenly thought was the objective; what he got was a bump in his self-confidence.  And the Liberals got a dry run for their campaign tour machinery.

Today, Donolo stood at the back of the room, chatting with reporters (and with me for a few minutes) while Ignatieff spoke: a testament to how confident the Liberals are in Ignatieff’s carefully nurtured capacity to perform. Believe me, when Dion spoke, his advisors hung on every word.

My problem with Ignatieff has been that he has never shaped a bold critique or clear alternative to the Harper “regime”, as he has taken to calling it – economically, fiscally, environmentally, and so on. Arguably, he and his party are complicit in many of the Conservative policies they decry. Where were they anyway, as the Tories set about reversing Canada’s approach to crime and punishment? Where were they as climate change was utterly abandoned as an issue of government concern? It has been a minority government, after all.

Rather than presenting vigorous, principled opposition, Ignatieff has counted on a “swing of the pendulum” back to the Liberals that he hoped would come as people tired of Harper’s abrasive personality and conservative policies.

But none of that is top of mind for the media travelling with Ignatieff. Speaking with several of them, albeit briefly, it was clear that the collective sentiment is that he is doing well in this campaign – outperforming the low expectations that in truth the media had themselves set for him.

When reporters start to believe the campaign they are covering is going somewhere, their own spirits rise. The Nanos poll showing the Liberals closing the gap with the Tories will feed into that sense they they’ve got a good story on their hands. Maybe this could even turn into a horse race!

This mood among the media can change, of course, with a single serious misstep. It is probably a necessary, but certainly not a sufficient, condition for Ignatieff’s success in this election. But Ignatieff has cleared a bar that Dion never did.

For now, at least, Ignatieff will be spared the ignominy that Kim Campbell suffered as her candidacy imploded, of having photographers gather round as a parking cop placed a ticket on the windshield of her campaign bus.

Paul Adams is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton. He is a former Parliament Hill reporter and worked in the polling industry. You can follow him on Twitter @padams29