In the only campaign that I know of where my contribution competed with that of Tom Flanagan, his campaign beat the one I was working on, and handily. So, feel free to add salt as you read this.
In his piece in The Globe this week, Professor Flanagan makes the case for more negative advertising, suggesting it has civic virtue. He notes that as political practices go, going negative is as old as the hills, and traces it back to Cicero's brother. He suggests that those who dislike it are like schoolgirls (my daughters wouldn't appreciate this reference, I'm fairly certain).
Mr. Flanagan, whom I respect, makes a case, but there's another side to this argument of course. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece also last week about dignity in American life. He was linking the Palin, Jackson and Sanford events of recent weeks, and lamenting lost principles of etiquette, although he singled out Barack Obama as someone of flawless dignity.
In his piece, Mr. Brooks drew on a work done by George Washington, entitled Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour, at least as worthy guidance as the Cicero quote Mr. Flanagan uses as support ("See that your competitors are smeared with an evil reputation").
To my eyes, for all the examples of how going negative works, there are often other ways of assessing things. I happen to feel that Preston Manning (whom I also respect) would have had a better chance of national success had he more frequently resisted advice to use negative attacks. His campaign once ran ads suggesting the country didn't need more leaders from Quebec. As someone who had been presenting himself as a new and improved style of politician, I think Mr. Manning probably won a few votes in the short term, but lost more opportunity in the long run. I'm pretty sure the ad left people with an inaccurate view of how Mr. Manning feels about Quebeckers, too.
More recently there was last week's episode where Stephen Harper derided Michael Ignatieff for a quote that was made by someone else. The Prime Minister was quick to apologize for the error. But even if the quote had been Mr. Ignatieff's, was the Prime Minister of Canada well advised to use the global platform of the G8 summit to question the patriotism of the Canadian Opposition Leader? Polls routinely show that Mr. Harper's biggest weakness in the mind of voters is a tendency toward excessive partisanship. Why risk exacerbating that image problem, especially when his week on the international stage had been going so well?
As a citizen who cares about politics and public life, I hope more political leaders will ignore advice to take the low road, and perhaps not even bother trying to do the political calculus. I'm well aware that proving that the high road leads to more votes is difficult. It's far easier to show how destroying an opponent works.
Mr. Obama's victory is an example of how dignity can be rewarded, but it also raises the question of whether turning dignity into a winning political formula requires exceptional communications talents. Stylistically, attack is less demanding.
At the risk of sounding all schoolgirlish, shouldn't dignity and courtesy be embraced for their inherent rewards, as a better way to live a life? For those in politics, respect should be earned by doing things of real public virtue, and to me that isn't a test of who has better knife skills.
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