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Jeffrey Simpson

Attack the policies, not the person Add to ...

Of course the Conservative televised attack ads are degrading and disgusting. What did anyone expect?

The ads reflect the Prime Minister, and the party he has made in his image. Stephen Harper would have approved them because everything passes his desk as über-strategist, because this is the way he does partisan politics, and because presumably he and his advisers think that these attack ads work. Sadly, perhaps they are right.

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Sadly, not because the ads attack the ideas and policies of other parties. Those sorts of attacks are part and parcel of democratic debate. No, the ads are degrading and disgusting because they demean the personalities, backgrounds and motivations of other leaders. The ads are nasty, personal and below-the-belt. Which is what, alas, Canadians have come to expect from the Harper-led Conservative Party.

After all, the party has been down this road before. Shortly after Stéphane Dion became Liberal leader, the Conservatives assaulted him with ads that made him look physically ridiculous. Shortly after Michael Ignatieff became leader, the Conservative ads impugned his patriotism and suggested he was driven exclusively by personal ambition.

These latest attack ads pick up the same theme: Mr. Ignatieff returned to Canada only to satisfy personal ambition. The inference is clear - he's not really a Canadian, and he's only in the political game for himself.

There's not a word in the attack ad against Mr. Ignatieff or the one directed at NDP leader Jack Layton concerning their policies or ideas. Politics, if you follow the twisted logic behind the ads, is all about personalities; and political argumentation is apparently all about tearing down the motivations and personalities of opponents.

This twisted logic makes the ads so thoroughly appalling. To say that a politician is ambitious, and should be scorned as such, is like mocking an athlete because he or she wants to win the game, or a business person because he or she wishes to make a profit.

Is Mr. Harper himself without political ambition? After all, apart from a few short years out of politics in Calgary, he's been around or in politics all his adult life. It would be demeaning toward Mr. Harper to say, as he now alleges about Mr. Ignatieff, that everything he does is driven by personal ambition.

When a politician so lowers the tone of discourse to impugn his opponents' motivations and backgrounds, how does that politician expect the broad public to have any respect for the accuser, the political process and all those who work there. If anything, the attack ads reveal much more about the attacker than the attacked.

No wonder all parties struggle to attract people of great quality to politics, since who would want to be depicted as the Conservative attack machine does about two highly intelligent, committed men such as Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton?

You can disagree with both of them on issues or ideology; you can criticize their sense of the public interest; you can dislike their parties; but they are both honourable men who, as a matter of public record, accomplished more outside politics (Mr. Ignatieff as a writer, broadcaster and public intellectual of international renown; Mr. Layton as an academic and head of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities) than Mr. Harper did.

What attack ads do, therefore, is degrade discourse and turn all but the sharpest partisan into someone revolted by the entire world of politics. The Liberals began running hard-hitting television ads Friday, but at least they stuck to issues, not personalities.

We, as citizens, might hope for political leaders who inspire, or at the very least act as we would wish to act ourselves, with some measure of civility and mutual respect.

Abraham Lincoln once summoned his people to the "better angels of our nature," an aspiration that is seldom achieved in the real world of life and politics. But that aspiration was, and is, a noble one, because it asks everyone, but especially a country's leaders, to aim for the highest ideals.

It is one thing for a leader to aspire high and fail, for whatever reason; it is another for a leader to aim low and succeed. He might temporarily triumph, but the country loses.

 

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