See that your whole campaign is full of show, glorious and colourful; and see that your competitors are smeared with an evil reputation for crime, vice, or bribery.
- Quintus Tullius Cicero, 63 BC
These words come from the world's first campaign manual, reportedly written by the brother of the Roman statesman Cicero. Not much has changed since then. Election campaigns have always been, and always will be, both positive and negative.
Elections are an exercise in comparative judgment. Campaign professionals understand the need to give voters reasons to support their candidate and reject the others. It's pretty simple, really - about as obvious as the need for both running and tackling in a football game.
In modern Canadian politics, the Liberals have been the masters of negative campaigning. In 1988, they ran ads almost accusing Brian Mulroney of treason, of selling out Canada to the United States through the free-trade agreement. In 1991, Sheila Copps compared Preston Manning to David Duke, the former Louisiana Ku Klux Klan leader. In 2000, Warren Kinsella went on television to ridicule Stockwell Day's alleged (never demonstrated) belief in Young Earth creationism.
In 2004, the Liberals eked out a minority victory with wave after wave of negative ads about Stephen Harper's supposed "secret agenda" - hard to refute publicly because it was secret by definition. Showing the preternatural gift of prophecy, the Liberals also ran ads about the "$50-billion black hole" in the Conservative budget projections. There was no evidence for it in 2004, but it came true in 2009!
Late in the 2006 campaign, the desperate Liberals released a suite of negative ads that backfired against them. Like every other tactic in politics, negative advertising is only effective if it is well executed. These ads were so far over the top that they were parodied by the late-lamented Frank magazine: "Is Stephen Harper the Antichrist? We just don't know. He refuses to talk about it. Now why would he do that?"
Since then, however, the tough-as-nails Liberal warriors have begun to sound like whiny schoolgirls, complaining about Conservative negative ads. Not only do they whimper when the Conservatives run their ads against Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, but they complain when the Conservatives attack the Bloc Québécois for having voted in Parliament against minimum sentences for trafficking in children under 18.
All these Conservative ads belong to the most moderate and usually most effective genre of negative campaigning. They focus on the public record, repeating the words and recounting the deeds of political opponents. Mr. Dion said it's not easy being a leader; Mr. Ignatieff was out of Canada for decades; the Bloc voted against Bill C-268. The ads contain no invented allegations, no exposé of private affairs, no attacks on family members - just the recall of past news stories.
So why are the Liberals so upset? Have they really gone soft? Actually, I suspect their response is more cerebral. The Liberals are always close students of Democratic tactics in American elections, and here they seem to be imitating what the Democrats did in 2008 against the Republicans.
One of the main Democratic themes in the primaries was fear of the "Republican attack machine." Even as Hillary Clinton was stridently attacking Barack Obama, she was emphasizing the need to be able to stand up to the Republican machine that had supposedly brought down Michael Dukakis with the Willie Horton ad and John Kerry with revelations from the "Swifties" (veterans who had served with Mr. Kerry on patrol boats in Vietnam).
The Democrats pursued this theme so vigorously, and got so much resonance for it in the media, that it colonized the mind of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Mr. McCain would not countenance ads on what would have been his single-best theme - Barack Obama's relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. For 20 years, Mr. Obama and his wife sat in the pews of the Trinity United Church of Christ listening to Mr. Wright's anti-white and anti-Semitic remarks. Mr. Obama did not break with Mr. Wright until absolutely forced to by adverse publicity. What was going on there?
It would have been a public service for the Republicans to run ads on the Wright-Obama relationship, just as the Liberals performed a public service in 2004 when they put up an attack website full of old quotes from Stephen Harper. So-called negative advertising is an integral part of informing voters so they can make up their own minds.
Tom Flanagan, a former Conservative campaign manager, is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.