If he says you’re fat, you say he’s bald

This was a political maxim Liberal strategist Jim Coutts told my public management class on a visit several years ago. Tit for tat. Continuing from last week’s post, this is not the strategy the Liberals are following as they choose not to respond to the Conservatives’ attack ads. Perhaps they simply don’t have the money to market test, produce, and air the ads, or even to post them online.

Michael Ignatieff has taken the position that he won’t dignify the attacks on his integrity with a response. This position is a well-known implicit narrative: I demonstrate that I’m the better man by not responding. By not responding, he’s denying additional attention to the attack ads. But he’s also leaving it up to the public to assess them.

Some voters will agree with Ignatieff that the ads are beneath contempt, but others will agree with the Conservatives that they reveal a sort of opportunism in Ignatieff that represents a serious character flaw.

If the Conservatives’ market testing reveals that these attacks work for a significant portion of the electorate, particularly swing voters, we can expect to see more of them during the campaign. It has also been darkly suggested that, given Ignatieff’s many televised utterances as a public intellectual, the most damaging ads are yet to come.

One can interpret Ignatieff’s most recent book, True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada as an attempt to write a counter-narrative that responds to the Conservatives’ attack ads. The problem is that the initial hardcover ranks 49,325 on amazon.ca. Even if his publisher releases a paperback edition in time for the election campaign it will reach far fewer voters than televised ads.

Political campaigns – and governing – are about both policy and leadership. Policy is the easier of the two to discuss. Policy positions can be presented with some specificity and citizens can see policies put in place and affecting them. But leadership, defined as that set of intellectual and emotional traits that a politician brings to the job, matters enormously. The vast majority of voters have never met the party leaders, and only a few hundred have ever spent long enough interacting with them to have any in-depth understanding of their leadership styles. So what most of us know, or think we know, about party leaders – as leaders – comes from the media. We form our impressions from their speaking style, body language as glimpsed in short clips, or insider reports or gossip.

(Personal disclosure: I have never met Stephen Harper. I met Michael Ignatieff once, at a reception in Toronto for Harvard Kennedy School alumni. The Dean of HKS cancelled at the last minute and Ignatieff gave a graceful and eloquent speech in his absence, leading me to the limited conclusion that he handles the public component of academic leadership very well.)

I see attack ads that deal with a candidate’s character as a legitimate though imperfect element of political discourse. They attempt to talk about character weaknesses, though often using questionable evidence.

If the Conservatives are attacking Ignatieff’s character, then it is legitimate for the Liberals to attack Harper’s. Notice that Coutts didn’t say “if he says you’re fat, you say you’re thin.” There is a big difference between denying that you’re fat and saying that your opponent is bald.

The Conservatives’ narrative is that Stephen Harper has grown in stature as prime minister. The Liberals’ response would be to attempt to disrupt that narrative, to argue that he hasn’t grown in stature, that he’s still the “same old Harper” he was in his Reform Party and Canadian Taxpayers’ Foundation days. They could focus not only on his policies but on well-known aspects of his record as prime minister such as his controlling, autocratic, and secretive style of leadership. And they would also point out parallels with the past.

Whether the Liberals will do this when the campaign begins is another matter. But Jim Coutts was an awfully shrewd and successful political strategist.

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