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Joshua Ostroff Headshot

The Left Always Loses by Running Right

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When the 2015 federal election kicked off a couple millennia ago, the NDP was in an unprecedented lead. And yet not only did they lose their official opposition status, returning to third-party rump status, but they lost my parents, aging hippies who have been voting NDP since the late 1960s but went Liberal for the first time ever.

Yes, it was a strategic attempt to defeat the Conservative candidate, but they, the epitome of the progressive base, felt comfortable doing so because the Liberals moved toward them while the NDP moved away.

Activist Naomi Klein, who did her best to push the race to the left with her all-star Leap Manifesto, summed it up pretty succinctly in this Facebook post last night:

The Libs ran left and soared. The NDP moved right and crashed. Now it's up to the public to turn cynical strategy into action. #elexn42

Posted by Naomi Klein on Monday, October 19, 2015

Was the Liberal turn to the left cynical? Maybe. It certainly worked on my folks and countless others -- the formerly orange strip of downtown Toronto I reside in was completely washed over by the Red Tide.

But the thing about the Liberals is that they have always been a pragmatic party that sniffs the political winds and tacks that direction. That's the benefit of being centrist, for both MPs during elections and mainstream voters who arguably have more influence on the party's platform.

The Conservatives on the right and the NDP on the left are supposed to be programatic parties, ones with policies shaped not by public opinion but by ideology.

That certainly remained true for Stephen Harper's Conservatives, who ran an ugly, divisive campaign that was aimed primarily at the right-wing base. There was no way that wedge issues like the niqab, Syrian refugees, or ISIS were going to win over the other side, but the right almost never cares about the other side.

This has always been the case. Consider former Premier Mike Harris' infamous protest-wracked stewardship of Ontario in the 1990s, and then compare it to Bob Rae's wishy-washy reign. The right may not always win, but they always do what they say they're going to -- and to be honest, it's always easier to cut than add, so eventually losing can still be considered a win.

The left, however, likes to appease people who likely won't ever vote for them -- and while this does make sense in their ideology's inherent inclusivity, it also shows a lack of faith in their vision.

And it lets the uncompromising other side set the ground rules.

This is not exclusive to Canadian politics by any means, of course. Take the U.S. Republican Party. Aside from a short-lived pre-9/11 attempt to sell George W. Bush as a "compassionate conservative," that party has always run its campaigns -- and its administrations -- to the right.

Dubya's dad ran race-baiting Willie Horton ads against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in the late '80s, and John Kerry was similarly swift-boated in 2004. And maybe he deserved it, too, since Kerry ran more as a Vietnam war hero than a Vietnam war protester, despite making his campaign all about Iraq.

Bill Clinton was admittedly successful running a triangulated centrist campaign, but in 2000, Al Gore ran away even from that in his winning-losing bid to become president. Ironically, afterward he became a global icon in the climate change fight, but that Gore was absent in his campaign. He actually let the Republicans make "liberal" a dirty word, so why vote for a liberal?

In this year's U.S. presidential race, the right is running even further to the right, led by Mr. Burns, er, Donald Trump, but what's more surprising is that the Democrats are learning from past mistakes.

Or, rather, from Obama's recent successes.

Obama may have initially run as a unifier, but his skin colour made that impossible (and gave rise to the Tea Party's excess on the other side). But he's also had the most effective lame-duck presidency in history by fulfilling the left-wing mandate of his voters rather than appeasing Republicans like he had done in the past.

Bernie Sanders' surging popularity has shown that there is power in the left -- he's gone beyond "liberal" to try and get people to embrace "socialist" -- and while he's unlikely to get the nomination, he's already pushed Hillary Clinton to be more progressive, which she clearly sees as a winning strategy.

Trudeau clearly sniffed those winds and tacked just enough to the left to win the Anybody-But-Conservative vote, selling deficit spending as way to heal the wounds of the Harper years on top of promises like legalizing pot and setting up an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Tom Mulcair, however, didn't trust in that Democrat strategy. With a lead in the polls, he fell victim to the Conservative definition of the NDP as fiscally irresponsible and led with a promise to balance the budget.

After years of austerity measures, that rightward turn (not unlike what the provincial NDP had done in the 2014 Ontario election) felt to many like a betrayal of party values in search of a few votes. And by the time the NDP started plummeting in the polls and Mulcair reasserted their progressive position, it was too little, too late.

So, who exactly was cynical again?

In the end, anti-Harper voters decided that rather than elect a centrist NDP, they'd go with the Liberals who were already parked in that spot. But hopefully for folks like my parents, the incoming Trudeau government will remember the left turn that got them there.


Canada Election Night 2015
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