Let's face something right now: Ignatieff is not Paul Martin. He does not have much in the way of economic strength or knowledge. He doesn't have much of a record on it. All people know right now is that Iggy wants to freeze the corporate tax rate, reduce the deficit, and possibly spend more.
Poll after poll has shown that the Liberals are no longer trusted as they were before on economic issues. Sure, we're the ones who made Harper go for the stimulus package that helped save our collective asses - but we're not getting credit for it. Flaherty, despite his record, is a steady, experienced hand on the Finance portfolio during this time of economic uncertainty, and people trust him more than they will Scott Brison. That's just the way it is. Unless we come up with some new and brilliant economic direction that makes sense, it's going to stay this way.
For the record, I have no doubt that in reality, Brison, McCallum, and the rest of the Liberal finance team will be a fantastic bunch. No doubt. But politics is 90% perception, and we simply don't have the image of careful, calm economic managers to the extent we did before. Sure, we slayed the Mulroney deficit; but that "we" are the Liberals of 1993-2006. People will only go for our record so far, and the new Liberal Party can't rely on it to restore confidence in our ability to manage the economy in crisis. We have to generate that confidence ourselves.
But as I noted, with our current leader, it'll take a helluva lot of effort to generate much. But that doesn't necessarily spell doom - in fact, it can almost be an advantage.
One of the things that brought Stephen Harper to power in 2006 is that the economy was chugging along fine. The Martin Liberals were considered the ultimate economic managers, and Harper couldn't compete. So Harper's strategy had to shift to tackle this problem, because if you can't win on the economic front, you have to be able to win somewhere else. That somewhere else is obvious: value voters.
No one can deny that the sponsorship scandal dropped the Liberals heavily - but Harper was only able to take advantage of it because he appealed to people's sense of morality and anger on the issue of accountability. He culled those voters who, by their own values, couldn't stand the corruption of the Liberal government of the day.
Harper also appealed to voters who, by their values, wanted tougher crime legislation, lower taxes, and even the repealing of Bill C-38. Harper paid lip service to economic management, but most of his campaign was never focused on it. Things were going well, why fight on ground you can't win in?
And it worked: voters, who felt secure with the economic situation, donated their time to the value issues that drove them to the polls in 2006. In 2008, when the economy was tanking, Dion's values-driven Green Shift tanked because of economic uncertainty (and other obvious reasons), and Harper cost himself a majority when he didn't address the issue. When he did, though, he got votes, for obvious reasons why.
And while today, the economic situation isn't great, it's not tanking. The Conservatives will be hurt if it does, but without a leader that can bring economics to the forefront, the Liberals might not be able to take advantage. If economics stays in the forefront of voter's minds, then the Liberals, in all frankness, won't get far; but if the situation improves, we can take advantage of it.
Why? Because even after situations, be it economic crises or conflicts, end, voters are often looking for a government that will lead them to better pastures. Sure, the person who kept us afloat during the crisis was good, but now we need someone with a different mindset. This happened to Winston Churchill at the end of World War 2, when he was replaced by Labour PM Clement Attlee who brought in medicare and other value-driven initiatives. The question after a crisis ends and things become normal or more well off is usually framed as "how can we now use this return to wealth effectively according to our values?", not "how do we sit on it?"
The Liberals have an advantage on this - we have the popular, moderately progressive policies that Canadians want. We can address the issues over health care and how to reform it; we bring up questions about our foreign policy interests; we ponder on issues such as rights, welfare, and education - we are very, very good with value issues, and we can bring on board value voters if we try.
Look at the polls and the trends we see. People aren't abandoning Harper just because of the economy - they're abandoning him because he's an autocratic, partisan, right-wing ideologue who spends stupidly for ideological pet projects. He doesn't represent Canadian values, and when he shows that, voters move to the Liberals, because we take advantage of those value issues.
The Liberals are seemingly on this path, as we're presenting value issues as the best reason to vote for us. Yes, we can, should, and do address the economic challenges; but when times are good, people want to see a new plan on how to manage government when not in crisis mode. We can provide the new ideas Canadians want to see, and we can win that way. Ignatieff can win that way - values are right up his alley.