Bad things happen in threes.
It’s a well-known scientific fact. Celebrity deaths, natural disasters, and plane crashes all seem to take place more or less three at a time.
For the Liberal Party, now careening toward a natural disaster of its own, there’ll be lots of time to reflect on the bad stuff. In particular, there will be ample time to identify the three bad decisions that consigned the party to the Opposition benches (and, maybe, not even the Official Opposition benches).
To assist the discussion, here — in chronological order — are my three picks for really, really bad Grit decisions. The ones that led Michael Ignatieff’s party to the unhappy outcome it now almost certainly faces.
The first came in May 2009, when the Conservatives unleashed their first wave of attack ads against Ignatieff — and Ignatieff decided against responding in kind.
Liberals had been hearing in the spring of 2009 the Tories were putting together a series of tough attack ads about the newly-minted Liberal leader. Polls were showing Canadians were interested in Ignatieff — and, in places like Quebec, he was very popular. Conservatives were nervous.
Their barrage questioned why Ignatieff had been away from Canada for 34 years — and suggested he was a poncy aristocrat, one who “wasn’t in it for you, just for himself.” The devastating TV spots would be called the “Just Visiting” ads, and reportedly cost the Tories in excess of $3 million. They worked.
In electoral politics, one rule matters above all the others: Define, or be defined. Ignatieff chose not to respond to the attacks — believing, to his credit, Canadians wouldn’t be influenced by the Cons’ mud-throwing. It was a fatal error.
The second big mistake came a year later, in June 2010 — when Ignatieff slammed the door on any possibility of co-operation (or coalition, or merger) with the NDP.
That spring, Jean Chretien, Ed Broadbent, Roy Romanow and other senior Liberals and New Democrats were rumoured to be mooting the possibility of bringing the two progressive parties together in some fashion. Unlike the previous attempt, in late 2008, the Liberal and NDP statesmen knew the discussion could not involve the separatist Bloc Quebecois — and it needed to be done before the next election, robbing Stephen Harper of the opportunity to claim his opponents were attempting to subvert democracy.
Ignatieff and his maladroit senior staff, however, were dead set against the idea. They had convinced themselves the coming election would be a referendum on Harper — and that they, alone, would be the preferred antidote.
They were right about one thing: This election is a referendum on Harper. But they didn’t anticipate what has happened — Jack Layton is the alternative. Not Ignatieff.
The third big mistake came in the spring of 2011, and everyone remembers it: Despite being far behind in the polls, despite a lack of election readiness — despite the fact that senior, more-experienced Grits were pleading for caution — Ignatieff and his senior advisers decided to defeat the Harper government, and force an election. The ultimate result of that decision, of course, remains to be seen. But few Liberals expect it to be good.
So, do bad things truly come in threes? Beats me.
But, in baseball, strikes do.
And when you get three of them, you’re out.