Current Conservative MPs’ unease with their party’s attack ads on Justin Trudeau is eerily reminiscent of the most famous political attack ad meltdown of all.
Twenty years ago this fall, Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s election campaign unveiled a ‘not a prime minster’ television ad aimed at Liberal leader Jean Chrétien. It used a photograph that attempted to mock his facial mannerisms, which were caused by a childhood attack of Bell’s Palsy. The ad was not subtle. “I would be embarrassed with this man as prime minister,” said one voice-over, erasing any doubt as to the intent.
The ad’s appearance was brief but notorious. Just one day after being aired, it was pulled. Back in her hotel suite, following the difficult press conference in Quebec City where she announced the decision to recant the ad, Ms. Campbell broke into tears.
While it’s hard to imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper doing either of those things – pulling an ad or breaking into tears – the lessons are instructive for how political advertising is received by the most important audience of all: your own party.
The sequence of events that took hold in the Campbell campaign was stark and divisive, all but guaranteeing the ad’s repudiation by the leader of the party.
First, no notice was given to the Prime Minister or her entourage on the road that the ad was coming. The first the campaign bus heard about it was when they landed in Quebec City and phone calls from the party and media started to come through. She was caught completely off-guard.
Second, the negative reaction was instantaneous and incandescent. No slow boil here. One Toronto riding office reported 55 phone calls within an hour. Lawn signs were uprooted and dropped off at some local campaign headquarters. Ignited, the brushfire rapidly became a wildfire.
Third, the anger was coast to coast in the party. Fredericton MP Bud Bird gave an interview that morning saying it didn’t represent his kind of politics. Ontario cabinet minister Doug Lewis put out a press release disassociating himself from the ads. By the time the sun was setting in Vancouver Quadra, the Tory candidate even put a yellow sticker on his own lawn signs stating: “I’m angry too.”
For the Liberals it was a gift. Mr. Chrétien’s response – “God gave me this disability” – was tone-perfect, prompting one PC cabinet minister to say wryly, “Chrétien has been waiting for thirty years to make that speech and we let him.”
Ms. Campbell and her campaign were caught in the crosshairs of not just the media and the Liberals, but their own party too. In a time before the Internet, a videotape of the ad had to be delivered to the Prime Minister on the road so it could be viewed. By the time she was able to do so, the damage was already done. Despite gamely defending the ads earlier in the day, by late afternoon she made it official. They would be pulled.
Tory HQ fumed over the “chocolate soldiers” in the party who melted away in the heat of political combat. But it was the party itself, and many of its candidates, that melted away from campaign headquarters.
An election is the ultimate hothouse atmosphere which, admittedly, is not the case today, years away from an election. Political opponents will always take umbrage with their opposite numbers’ advertising, especially if it is effective. So, you may discount Liberal complaints today. But it is striking when upwards of eight Conservative MPs have publicly said (and likely more, off the record) they won’t use the so-called “ten percenter” anti-Justin Trudeau flyers in their own ridings. Something is amiss.
Recently, we have seen disconnects between the Conservative Party leadership and some of its elected members. As in the past, these can spell political trouble in the future. Mr. Harper would know. After all, 1993 was his first election too.
David McLaughlin is a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and staffed the campaign bus with Prime Minister Kim Campbell. He wrote a book on the 1993 election campaign, Poisoned Chalice.