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Lawrence Martin

It’s a risky time for attack ads Add to ...

For many reasons, we might have thought – before the release of Monday’s attack ads – that Stephen Harper would seek higher political ground in the coming months and try to portray himself as a statesman.

One reason was all the criticism he has received over the years for mean-spiritedness, for appearing like a low-road operator for whom governing was all about crippling opponents. In the 2008 election, he tried to soften this image by donning the blue sweater.

A second reason was that he recently brought in a new chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who was said to have a more conciliatory and mature attitude than predecessor Guy Giorno, known for his bunker mentality.

A third reason was Tucson. Barack Obama’s speech after the shootings there called for an elevation of the dialogue and end to the politics of polarization. The address was lauded everywhere, even in right-wing Republican circles. To bring out a series of attack ads afterward was hardly something political experts would have recommended.

A senior Liberal strategist told me last week that they expected Mr. Harper would, in fact, try to moderate his image and that it would not be helpful to the Liberal cause. The strategist, however, did make a clichéd observation – the one about a leopard never changing his spots.

On the latter, he appears to have nailed it. With the release of the ads, Mr. Harper appears to be sticking with the tactics that helped get him here. He’s banking on the notion that, in the end, Canadians really don’t care whether their prime minister has any class or not.

He may be right. But at some point, you have to wonder whether this kind of politics will backfire. It looked like it would a year ago, when much opposition arose after he shut down Parliament. The Haiti calamity intervened to save him.

The Conservatives can defend their new ads as accurate – provided that those who view them are among the most gullible folk who ever walked the Northern Hemisphere. For example, one ad notes that Michael Ignatieff favoured a carbon tax at one point. It forgets to mention that he has since disavowed a carbon tax. The Liberal Leader did, as an ad says, agree to forming a coalition under Stéphane Dion. But it forgets to mention that he dissolved the coalition, a coalition that did not, as the Tory ad claims, have the Bloc as its “driving force.” Another ad says Mr. Ignatieff does not rule out raising the GST. It is as ignorant of context as the other claims.

Besides distorting his current positions by replacing them with his positions of yesterday, the ads, with their sinister music, attack Mr. Ignatieff’s patriotism, suggesting his heart lies in the United States. It’s poppycock, and if the Liberals are smart, they will run a counter ad putting the points in proper context and concluding with a voiceover: “Mr. Harper. Canadians aren’t dumb. Don’t treat them as such.”

There are myriad examples wherein the Liberal leader can be legitimately criticized. The same is true for NDP Leader Jack Layton, who isn’t spared. He is attacked as being “desperate for power.” It’s surprising he is targeted because the New Democrats are the party most likely to save the Conservatives from defeat on the coming budget. It may well be that Mr. Harper has decided he wants to take a chance on an election in the next few months.

The Prime Minister is banking on the knowledge that his attack ads worked before. They worked in portraying Mr. Dion as a weak leader and they worked, to a degree at least, in portraying Mr. Ignatieff as an academic who was just visiting.

But, given the PM’s reputation, given his need to be more statesmanlike to broaden his support, given Tucson and the search for higher standards, he is taking a bigger gamble this time. Canadians are likely to compare this junk with what they heard from Mr. Obama last week.

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