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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

The only sure election winner: negative campaigning Add to ...

When B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix first announced that he planned to conduct an election campaign that would strike a positive tone, many in his party thought it was a noble and righteous thing to do. Then there were those who thought it was just plain nuts.

As New Democrats search through the wreckage of this week’s B.C. election searching for clues as to what went wrong, many have come to the conclusion that the seeds of the electoral trouncing the party received at the hands of the governing Liberals were sown early.

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In fact, some believe that the NDP’s defeat took root shortly after Mr. Dix assumed the leadership of his party in the spring of 2011 and decided he wasn’t going to run the kind of traditional, attack-style campaign that was standard fare in B.C. elections. He wanted to take the high road. He wanted to demonstrate more respect for voters. He wanted to sell hope over fear. It all sounded nice and high-minded, but even many of Mr. Dix’s biggest admirers worried about the strategy.

It turns out their anxiety was warranted.

The reasons that Mr. Dix and his party were trounced at the polls are many. His decision to mount the kind of righteous crusade he did is only one among them – but it was a crucial blunder.

There are some who believe that the NDP Leader’s decision was dictated, in part, by his past. Mr. Dix had been involved in a little imbroglio when he was chief of staff to then-premier Glen Clark. In 1999, he had backdated a memo in an attempt to shield Mr. Clark from a conflict-of-interest investigation. That horrible mistake cost him his job.

Some think that, because he had that skeleton dangling in his background, Mr. Dix could hardly sanction a campaign of vicious attacks against his opponent, Christy Clark. There may have been the wish, too, that, if he went positive, it would make it more difficult for Ms. Clark to go negative. If there were those who considered that a possibility, they were extremely naive.

The Liberals were always going to wage a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred battle. It plays to Ms. Clark’s strengths. She’s a fighter and, when it comes time to drop the gloves, completely fearless. There was never a question that the Liberals were going to raise the infamous memo-to-file because it’s part of Mr. Dix’s political record.

So while Mr. Dix was touring the province and touting his modest agenda for change, Ms. Clark spent the campaign going after her opponent for being part of the dark decade when the NDP ruled B.C. and turned it into a have-not province. While she framed the ballot question around the economy, the NDP’s perennial Achilles heel, Mr. Dix refused to counterpunch. Instead, he wanted to talk about the sexy centrepiece of his platform – skills training.

It was bizarre to watch. Instead of the NDP’s behaving like the challenger, denouncing the Liberal record and telling voters why the long-time governing party needed to be booted from office, it was Ms. Clark who looked like the opposition leader trying to get into power, attacking her enemy’s record day after day. A record from the 1990s, no less.

Perhaps Mr. Dix felt he could campaign above the noise. Or maybe he thought he had a big enough lead heading into the contest that he could endure whatever Ms. Clark fired his way. As you watched Mr. Dix’s campaign progress, you pictured Muhammad Ali in his famous rope-a-dope pose, gloves covering his face, trying to protect himself from a blow that might prove lethal.

It was only when the NDP perceived the campaign to be tightening that Mr. Dix began going after the government’s various gaffes and miscues. By that point, it was too late.

The number of political leaders who have won an election running the kind of campaign Mr. Dix did is few. Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency in 2008 selling a brighter, more progressive tomorrow – a feat only someone with his charisma and extraordinary oratorical skills could have pulled off. Mr. Dix possessed neither.

Politics is a harsh, daily clash of ideologies. It’s unrealistic to think that the animus that fuels democracy will disappear come election time. Beyond that, people say they hate negative politics, but the fact is, they respond to it. The B.C. election proved that once again.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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