On Ignatieff's ballot question

Focusing on the "economy of tomorrow" is interesting for a couple reasons

On Ignatieff's ballot questionFiguring out each party’s preferred “ballot question”—what they hope voters will be asking themselves in the polling booth—is the traditional limbering-up exercise before a campaign. Remember to hydrate afterwards.

In last fall’s election, the Conservatives were largely successful in framing the question in terms of contrasting caricatures of leaders: Do you want as prime minister an “elitist professor” or a “minivan-driving hockey dad”? Watch for the Tories to attempt a reprise of that one.

As for the Liberals, Michael Ignatieff spelled out his ballot question with precision today at a news conference in Sudbury, Ont., where his caucus is meeting. “The ballot question,” he said, “is, ‘Who is best placed to lead Canada into the economy of tomorrow?’”

It’s an interesting question for two reasons.

Firstly, Ignatieff casts ahead to the future, instead of focusing on managing the country through what’s left of this year’s recession. In other words, he is not counting on Canadians punishing the government for the scare of 2008 and the slump of 2009. He will try to inspire voters to think beyond their immediate circumstances. That’s always tough to do. Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift pleaded for voters to take the long view, too.

Secondly, he’s making it all about the economy. Traditionally, that’s a strong suit for Conservatives. Now, you might think presiding over a plunge back into massive deficits would wipe out that residual brand advantage. I’m not so sure. Last fall and into the first few months of this year, economic predictions were exceedingly dire. Maybe the Tories will benefit from the widespread feeling that it hasn’t been as bad as expected.

Finally, there’s something familiar about the specific economic ideas Ignatieff is now emphasizing. He talks about the need for Canada to take the lead in promoting the expansion of the G8 into the G20, and about pursuing Canadian trade opportunities in the Chinese and Indian economies. Paul Martin, when he was finance minister, more or less came up with the idea of the G20; and adapting to the rise of the Asian economies was one of Martin’s signature preoccupations during his brief stint as prime minister.

Does this make Ignatieff’s ideas look weak and derivative? Or is he smart to link himself to a Liberal whose economic credentials were strong?