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The pressure for policies

Posted by cwaddell under All, Media Commentary, Political Strategy

Elly Alboim

The world changes for Michael Ignatieff after his convention speech Saturday night. The low bridge strategy thus far has been successful thus far and has allowed him time and space to work on his organizational priorities. But it has also led inevitably to increasing media demand for news and substance.  As that demand remains unrequited, it raises the threshold for successfully meeting it. Saturday night’s threshold is now pretty high.

So on to the debate about the right time to lay out core policy.

Political strategists will say, appropriately, that it is not yet time to unveil policy. In fact, it may well be that the ideal Liberal strategy is to force the ballot question to be a referendum on the Prime Minister. That implies anteing up only the minimal policy table stakes as late in the game as possible.

But in a world of a thoroughly disengaged electorate, media arrogates to itself (and is passively delegated) the role of setting the rules, establishing the pace and defining the champions.  More often than not, as lots of academic and public opinion research has established, it frames the initial narrative for its readership about the substance, process and personalities of current politics.

Political media has little patience for the incrementalism of a slow, deliberate build because that does not meet most definitions of what is news. In its defense, media will say that a man who is now a prime minister in waiting has a responsibility to say what he will do when the wait is over. They may say that but what they really mean is that they sense a large change in the political dynamic and they want to get on with the next round of exciting leadership politics.. A Battle of Champions is the most desirable sort of political narrative these days. It is much more engaging than other political coverage and capable of competing with other more entertaining news.

You can see the narratives building.

People are saying and writing things  questioning Prime Minister Stephen Harper – re his skill set, strategic sense, grip on the party, and shelf life — in ways they have not written before. All that is fostered by his weakening in the polls. They see a new potential narrative of a Fall From Grace on the basis of a Flawed Personality and an abandonment of ideological constancy which has Mr. Harper leading a Government About Nothing.

The Rise From the Liberal Ashes narrative is the frame surrounding Mr. Ignatieff , made more credible by his standing as Public Intellectual and the added mystery of his Enigmatic Personality.

That’s the ultimate narrative arc they want with each Champion acting out a classic dramatic role.

To get there, you need engagement and conflict. And disappointingly to political media, Mr. Ignatieff has not played the game. The brinkmanship is minimal, the policy cleavages virtually non-existent.

What comes next is inevitable and predictable – increasing and harsh media pressure on Mr. Ignatieff as the media consensus solidifies that he is not entitled to be a prime minister in waiting without defining himself and his policy set. As the weather forecasters say, there’s a 90% probability of rain.

He may hold out for a good while yet as the political strategists would have it. But there will be collateral damage – the media will have its say and much of what it says will be negative and will stick, at least initially. The Conservatives will pile on, doing their best to try to make it stick permanently.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communications and a principal in the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, specializing in strategic communications and public opinion.