This is a maxim about negative campaigning that Jim Coutts, former Liberal party strategist and principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau, told my public management class decades ago. I quoted it in a blog post on March 12, 2011 in which I questioned then Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff’s unwillingness to respond to Conservative Party attack ads. Given that Ignatieff ended up in the dustbin of Canadian political history, I return to Coutts’s maxim in the hope that Pierre Trudeau’s son will listen to Coutts’s wisdom.
As 243,000 (and ever increasing) YouTube viewers and God knows how many television viewers know, the Conservatives have begun their attack ads on Justin Trudeau. Like their attack ads on former Liberal leaders Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, they are personal and they come with a narrative. They dredge up history (Rae’s record as NDP premier of Ontario) and public statements (Michael Ignatieff on US television) to demonstrate that the Liberal leader, while motivated by overarching ambition, lacks the competence to be Prime Minister. The narrative about Trudeau is that, while he has the political pedigree, he doesn’t have the experience, judgment, or gravitas to be prime minister. And the Conservatives have also set up an attack website, justinoverhishead.ca, to amplify their point.
As I discussed in my post about Ignatieff, this is a use of what I call the ironic political fable. It contrasts the achievement of personal ambition (Ignatieff, Rae, or Trudeau becoming prime minister) with the predicted deleterious consequences for Canada.
Why are the Conservatives so stridently attacking Trudeau? One might simply argue, because they can. The Trudeau attack story is ready-made and the Conservatives have the money needed to tell it.
But it goes deeper than that. First, the Conservatives are intending to create conflict within the Liberal Party between those who counsel ignoring the attacks and those who advise strong and swift retaliation.
Second, it is part and parcel of the Conservatives’ desire to reshape Canadian politics by destroying the Liberal Party so as to create a two-party system consisting of the Conservatives and the NDP. In Conservatives strategy, the Liberals are a centre-left party, so must be destroyed, so that the Conservatives can occupy the centre. The Conservative attack machine has virtually ignored NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, with only the occasional attack on his policies but nothing attacking him personally.
What should the Liberals do? If they do nothing, Justin Trudeau risks the same fate as Michael Ignatieff, having a disastrous story told by the Conservatives about him so convincingly that he has no capacity to tell his own story of hope and heroism.
Coutts’s point was that you don’t deny what your opponents claim as your weaknesses because that just perpetuates their story. Rather you attack your opponent’s leader with your own negative attack ads. Liberal pollster Mike Marzolini’s suggestion of trying to parry the Conservative attack ads with parody and satire has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating their story.
Are the Liberals ready to launch attack ads on the Conservatives? Do they have the money? I recall that when Bob Rae was being attacked, they raised a special fund of several hundred thousand dollars for response, money which has yet to be spent. And they are attempting to raise more now for the same purpose.
Do they have the message? They could certainly attack Harper as having an ideologically conservative agenda, contrasting his May 2011 election-night statement that he would govern on behalf of all Canadians with his record since then. They could attack his omnibus bills and other perversions of parliamentary democracy. They could find clips of him smiling supportively with ministers whom he has later thrown from the bus. There is no shortage of material.
The NDP is quite pleased to see the Conservatives attacking the Liberals if it will help establish their role as permanent, rather than one-time, Official Opposition party. Just as the Conservatives have muted their broadcast attacks on the NDP, the NDP has silenced their broadcast (as opposed to parliamentary) attacks on the Conservatives.
Liberal attack ads would differentiate their party from the NDP. They would energize the Liberal base. They would put the Liberals in a position of leading the attack on Stephen Harper and constitute a bid for the support of the majority of Canadian voters who want something other than Stephen Harper.
Justin Trudeau must choose, and choose very soon, whether he wants to let the Conservatives tell his story, with all the predictable consequences that follow, or whether he will authorize a different narrative.