Having succeeded in framing Stéphane Dion as a somewhat comical figure, and in sowing doubts about the patriotism of Michael Ignatieff, the Conservative Party’s attack-ad machine has set its sights on the newest Liberal Leader, Justin Trudeau. No sooner did Mr. Trudeau assume the mantle this weekend than new ads appeared, ridiculing him as an undershirt-wearing former drama teacher who is not suited for leadership. The Conservative advertising videos are bullying in tone, predictably shallow and, at least in part, a distortion. And they might just work.
Mr. Trudeau’s initial answer has been to take the high road. He says he will respond forcefully, but in a positive manner. The Liberals have tried that before, either out of conviction or, more likely, a lack of money to put toward advertising between elections. Mr. Dion countered with a promotional video showing him snowshoeing with his dog. We know how that worked out.
It is difficult to understand Mr. Trudeau’s aversion to fighting fire with fire. It is fair game for the Tories to frame him (or any new or untried leader) as someone not to be taken seriously. These attack ads wouldn’t work if they didn’t touch on doubts that some Canadians may have. The ads are not beside the point. They are the point, and should not be evaded.
A positive message is essential, of course, but the notion of rising above negativity feels false to what politics are really about, and more important, winds up looking like weakness. There is nothing intrinsically dishonourable or offensive about negative advertising in politics. Isn’t politics about showing why you’re a better choice than your opponent? That implies both the positive and the negative. If the negative goes too far, as when, under Kim Campbell’s leadership, the Progressive Conservative Party made fun of Jean Chrétien’s jaw disfigurement, the voters will make them pay.
Is there no satirical fun the Liberals could have at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s expense? He may never have stripped down to his undershirt, but surely in his many years in politics he struck a discordant note somewhere.
Canadians have an appetite for humour and wit. And they don’t really appreciate when Liberal leaders sit back and appear to take it. They want to see some fight. It would be proof that, for every question being asked in a silly Conservative attack ad, the Liberals have an answer.