In a well-timed observation, Frank McKenna said last week that fellow Liberals "are dealing with thugs. They've got to fight back and fight hard."
The former New Brunswick premier, speaking as the government was trying to discredit Richard Colvin over the Afghan detainee file, hit the nail on the head. Since the departure of Jean Chrétien, who knew something about politics being a blood sport, the Liberals have become a party of pushovers, gritless Grits. Stephen Harper has taken over the Chrétien tough-guy role. It shows in the standings.
The downward spiral began when the well-meaning Paul Martin rolled over in the face of the sponsorship scandal. Instead of saying, "The police are looking into it, we're moving on," he did the honourable thing and appointed an inquiry. It did much to devour him and the party.
His successor Stéphane Dion, a man of integrity, was skewered as soon as he laced on his skates. The willowy academic was too soft for the big leagues. He brought to mind what Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard once said of winger Inge Hammarstrom. "He could skate into a corner with a half-dozen eggs in his pocket - and not break any of them." Mr. Dion's teammates were of little help. Instead of fighting back against the Harper assault on the legitimacy of a coalition, they ran and hid.
Following in the Dion soot-steps was the learned and upstanding Michael Ignatieff. Up against Mr. Harper, it's been nobleman vs. Doberman. The PM's calumny machine quickly turned Iggy into a blend of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. Tory attack ads painted him as a just-visiting, power-hungry carpetbagger. While threatening elections, Mr. Ignatieff had little in the way of a response. It was as if he was saying, "Just give me a minute while I turn the other cheek." Finally the party ran commercials featuring him standing alongside a forest issuing Boy Scout bromides that struck back with all the force of a dandelion.
If you know you are going to get brutally shelled in return, you are less inclined to shoot.
If these Liberal leaders were trying to take a higher road and bring badly needed integrity to the process, they deserve credit for it. But the reality is that it didn't work. The Harper thugs, as Mr. McKenna calls them, made them into punching bags while they barely laid a glove on the PM in return.
What to do now? The only way for the Liberals to really batter the Conservatives is to give them a lethal dose of their own medicine. A strategy of total aggression, starting with personal attack ads aimed directly at the Prime Minister. Mimicking Tory tricks, use dated Harper quotations to pillory him. Drag out the old Harper lines that showed him smearing the country as second rate. Highlight his long list of flip-flops and displays of hypocrisy.
You think that might get his attention? Mr. Harper and his Tories would holler how unfair it was but, given their own track record for dirty pool, they wouldn't have a leg to stand on.
Such a blitz would put an end to the Harper free ride. And it might very well make the Prime Minister think twice about going the gutter route again. If you know you are going to get brutally shelled in return, you are less inclined to shoot.
The Liberals don't need to go into a long, slow rebuild full of introspection and self-flagellation. If they are capable of losing 10 points in the polls in a few months - interestingly none of those lost 10 have gone to the Conservatives - they can gain 10 back in a few months.
Leaders score on personality, on policy and on politics (tactics). Mr. Harper scores strongly on only one of the three. On personality, he'll never win a charisma prize. On issues, not many are impressed by the soaring deficit, the war, his non-record on the environment. It's tactics, a principal one being his shameless use of the sledgehammer.
Nobleman Ignatieff has brought in new advisers, including some veteran Chrétien warriors. The Afghan detainees file is their first big test. We'll soon get an idea whether they will follow Mr. McKenna's advice and change course or whether it will be more of the same: Liberal popguns, Conservative cruise missiles.