Kaiser Michael’s War

Michael Ignatieff has a doctorate in history so he may enjoy this column. Up to a point. Then he really won’t like it at all.

Anyway, here comes the history.

From the founding of the modern German state in 1871, Imperial Germany had a big problem. It was stuck in the middle.

To the east was Russia. To the west, France. In a war, Germany could be forced to fight on two fronts. To deal with this mortal peril, the Germans developed the Schlieffen Plan, which called for the bulk of German forces to rush west and seize Paris. Having eliminated France, Germany would turn and meet the Russian juggernaut.

See where I’m going with this? The Liberal party, like the Kaiser’s Germany, is stuck in the middle. (An analogy I do not expect any Liberal to use in public, ever.) To the right is the Conservative party. To the left, the NDP. Every election campaign is a two-front war.

To deal with this mortal peril, the Liberals have traditionally followed their own Schlieffen Plan.

In the event of electoral war, the Liberals move swiftly to the left. Taking ground from the NDP ensures vote splits go their way but also creates the perception that the NDP is out of the fight. Voters whose primary concern is stopping the barbarians in the East -the Conservatives, naturally -are thus forced to support the Liberals.

Now, here comes the part of the column Michael Ignatieff won’t like.

In the First World War, the German assault on France worked well briefly but was stopped not far from Paris. Stalemate ensued. Meanwhile, on the eastern front, a Russian advance was defeated, and that front also locked in place. For four years, the nations fought a war of attrition. Germany exhausted first and was defeated -even though, on a map, its position looked little different than it had at the start of the war.

Sound familiar?

The Liberals’ opening attack -saying no to “jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts” -was a frontal assault on NDP territory. And it may have had some success. NDP support declined modestly in the opening phase of the campaign. But just as quickly, it stabilized and bounced back to where they started (or slightly above thanks to unprecedented gains in Quebec). It’s a rare Liberal who can draw leftists away from an NDP leader as strong as Jack Layton, and Michael Ignatieff isn’t much of leftist and he’s not that rare Liberal.

Simultaneously, the Conservatives attacked from the right, made modest gains, but gave them up. Now they’re stuck.

And so the campaign approaches the electoral equivalent of early 1918. After waves of attack ads, speeches, rallies, and the supposedly decisive leaders’ debates -after all the noise and drama -the parties have scarcely moved an inch.

Which is horrible for the Liberals. Their support is only a hair above what it was in the 2008 election, which was a historic low. Worse, the NDP is not a spent force. Indeed, to the extent that anyone has momentum in this grinding campaign, the NDP does. While the Liberals have begun shrieking about the end of civilization that will surely follow a Conservative victory, they may find the anyone-but-Conservatives vote increasingly tilts the NDP’s way.

Of course the nature of the firstpast-the-post system is such that regional trends and small shifts in local vote splits may make a big difference on election day. But at this point, it looks like Ignatieff’s Liberals are headed the way of the Kaiser’s Germany.

For that, the Liberals can blame the Schlieffen Plan.

The Liberals didn’t have to go left Indeed, it’s bizarre that they did.

There is a very wide swath of the Canadian public that would describe itself as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” They don’t want to hear another word about gay marriage or abortion or capital punishment. They’re wary of grand social engineering schemes, although they insist on a comprehensive social safety net. They generally like free markets and low taxes, but they don’t worship them. They tend to be pragmatists. The one thing they are truly dogmatic about is balancing the budget.

They may vote Conservative. They may vote Liberal. They will not vote NDP, or anything that smacks of the NDP.

They are heavily clustered in suburban and exurban Canada, which just happens to be where the election will be decided. Liberal strategists will say they tried to go after these people with policies like the “family pack” -the word “family” is very popular in the suburbs -but it’s the basic message that counts. And the Liberals’ basic message was an appeal to the left.

The Liberals had a good story they could have taken to suburbanites.

Liberals balanced the budget. Liberals governed during a period of unprecedented prosperity. Liberals strengthened the financial system so it could weather the 2008 storm. Liberals lowered corporate tax rates when it was fiscally prudent but wouldn’t think of doing that while the budget is in deficit -because balancing the budget and keeping it balanced is their absolute top priority, etc. Plus, the Conservatives spent money like drunken teenaged hoodlums with a stolen credit card: Do you really trust those people to fix the damage they did?

But the Liberals didn’t go that way. Instead, they dusted off the Schlieffen Plan, went left, and are now in a war of attrition that will, barring a sudden breakthrough, end in defeat.

When Germany collapsed, the Kaiser resigned and went into exile. The good news for Michael Ignatieff is that the Kaiser lived for many more years. The bad news is that he seldom had visitors.

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