At first it seems like a paradox. The 11-year reign of the Liberal Party in the province of Ontario has brought more misfortune – and certainly more farce – than the misbegotten NDP government of Bob Rae in the early 1990’s. And yet, public support for the current premier, Kathleen Wynne, is holding up much better than it did for Bob Rae. Considering all the billion dollar boondoggles her government has precipitated – almost all of them self-inflicted – this is almost unbelievable. Why?
The theory I have been nursing for a while is that, while a political party can lose an election for a whole host of reasons, it will only get creamed when it betrays its base.
Take Bob Rae. His party wasn’t wiped out in the 1995 provincial election because he completely mismanaged the provincial economy and drove the provincial government to near bankruptcy. Those things would only have resulted in a dignified loss. What turned defeat into unmitigated disaster was that he had attacked his base – the unions. His imposition of ‘Rae Days’ (unpaid holidays for provincial civil servants to save money and thereby avoid mass layoffs) was considered to be a fundamental betrayal. As a result, on Election Day, he had no supporters left. His base thought he was traitor, everybody else thought he was incompetent.
When former premier Dalton McGuinty suspended collective bargaining rights for teachers, that was his Bob Rae moment. The teachers were outraged at McGuinty. Everybody else was outraged at the teachers – and McGuinty. Not having the integrity of Bob Rae to try and fix the mess he created, McGuinty took the coward’s way out and called it a career.
His successor, Kathleen Wynne, seems to have learned the ‘Bob Rae’ lesson: don’t abandon your base. She quickly awarded sweetheart deals to the unions and they are now joined at the hip with her Liberal Party. The unions, for their part, also learned a lesson. Don’t declare war on your patron. In going after Bob Rae in 1995 for “Rae Days’, they ended up with Mike Harris, the most libertarian provincial leader ever elected in Canada. Layoffs followed.
(As an aside, I wonder if Wynne is planning on stabbing her union buddies in the back after the election – assuming she wins a majority. That would be the smart Machiavellian thing to do. With $12 billion deficits year-in-year-out, something drastic has to happen. Better to get the unpleasantries over with right away. Four years later, the unions will still hate her, but the rest of the people might see four years of prosperity and restraint, and award her a second majority.)
The lesson transcends Ontario politics. This is the reason Barack Obama’s poll numbers have not tanked like Jimmy Carter’s. Carter saw the error in his ways and began real reform. Airline deregulation and trucking deregulation were the first moves in Reaganomics, but they began under Carter. Conservatives saw malaise and defeat. Socialists saw a betrayal. In contrast, President Obama has the American left locked down. As a result, Obama’s popularity has a floor of 40% in the public opinion polls, below which it won’t go.
The lesson also transcends the political divide. The reasons Red Tories and RINO’s lose all the time, in spite of their vaulted ‘moderation’, is because their base - the people whose donations, volunteer time and moral support they need - hate them. The reason the poll numbers tumbled so badly for George W Bush was not Katrina, it was the immigration debate immediately preceding Hurricane Katrina, so that when the hurricane cane ashore, the people who normally would have stepped up to the plate to defend their President, didn’t. When Bush did all those bailouts and stimulus deals in the final year of his presidency, that sealed the deal. Conservatives abandoned him in droves, and he discovered that, as a result, there was no floor to his poll numbers. Iraq didn’t kill Bush (by his final year, he was winning that war), amnesty for illegal aliens and the bank bailouts did.
It’s also the reason John McCain (amnesty and McCain-Feingold) and Mitt Romney (Romneycare) lost to Obama. The base didn’t trust them.
The first rule of politics is, protect your base. The low information voters can always be can be corralled in at the last minute.