Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rae ad a well-aimed Conservative grenade into the Liberal tent

Proving that you don’t need to ignore or even bend election law to execute a savvy political strategy and tie your opponents in knots, the attack ad launched Sunday night by the Conservatives against interim Liberalleader Bob Rae is clever strategy on many levels. Most of all, it’s a well-aimed grenade into the Liberal tent.

There are many motivations for the Conservatives to launch this attack, and launch it now. For one, it helped distract attention a bit from yesterday’s Toronto-Danforth by-election, where the Conservatives (as expected) got creamed with a paltry 5.4 per cent of the vote, barely ahead of the Green Party. And with more and more damaging revelations coming out every day about the vote suppression scandal, it gives the chattering classes something else to chatter about for a few days. Such as why they’re attacking the interim leader of the third party instead of the official opposition (don’t worry, they’ll get to it).

But more than any of that, the ad is designed to provoke a response from the Liberal Party, and get them to either spend limited resources on a response and/or split the party against each other arguing over what the response, if any, should be.

The Conservatives know that, after financing multi-million dollar ad campaigns that helped destroy the last two Liberal leaders out of the gate, party members are loathe to let it happen again. At January’s convention, members even endorsed the creation of a leader defence fund. The Conservatives know that when attacked, we’re going to demand a forceful response. And they know, fund or no, their war chest still dwarfs ours.

The Conservatives also know that Rae’s refusal to firmly say one way or another if he will seek the permanent leadership is a source of contention within Liberal circles. Those that seek a fair playing field for the leadership race don’t want to see the party-financed leader’s office used to give one candidate a leg-up over the others. There are reports he has alreadydecided to run.

This ad seeks to divide the party between those who will want to see the war chest opened to defend Rae and his record, against those who think using our limited party resources to defend an interim leader who will either not be here in a year, or who may be one of several candidates for the permanent leadership, is unfair and improper. It’s rather a win-win scenario for the Conservatives. Either we deplete our war chest or we fight against each other. Ideally, for them, we’ll do both.

And it also forces Liberals to agitate for a clear answer from Rae on the leadership question: either he definitively rules out a run for the permanent job and continues to ably serve-out his term as interim leader, allowing other contenders to begin organizing. Or he says he will seek the permanent position, and resigns the interim office. As I’ve said before, Ithink it’s time the Liberal executive demand clarity on this issue.

But we need to recognize what the Conservatives are doing here. They’re trying to shift the terms of the debate and get us to fight on a field that’s advantageous to them; we shouldn’t acquiesce.

I support a response, but it must be measured and appropriate, and play to our strengths and our strategy. There are several natural responses. I don’t think ads defending Rae’s record as the NDP premier of Ontario in the 1990s make sense at this point for any number of reasons. Which isn’t to say don’t correct the record and talk it up, just don’t do an ad buy.

You could go negative on Harper and the Conservatives, and that option would find wider support within the party. The question is though, would it be particularly effective? I have my doubts. Harper is a known quantity at this point, and opinions on the Conservatives are reasonably set. We’ve run many ads against them over the years, and I’m doubtful another ad pointing out their failings is likely to be impactful. Which isn’t to say they don’t have their place, let’s just be strategic about it.

What would be impactful, and I believe the Liberal Party is working on this as part of our renewal and rebuilding process, is to present a credible and trusted alternative to the Conservatives, and to the NDP. We can run all the anti-Harper or anti-Conservative ads in the world, but until we convince Canadians we’re a good alternative most will stick with the devil they know. Canadians don’t care about the Ottawa back and forth. They may not love the Conservatives, but they see them as competent managers and certainly don’t hate them the way partisans do.

So any response we launch can’t just be aimed at making Liberal partisans feel better about Conservative attack ads. That’s a waste of money. We need to get outside the bubble and connect with what Canadians really care about -- their families, their day to day lives -- and speak to that, not the scandal du jour. We need to erode confidence in the Harper Conservatives as competent managers deserving of the public trust, while positioning the Liberals as the party that cares about the issues Canadians care about and is deserving of their trust.

Craft a response with those goals in mind and I’m on board. We need to pick our own battleground. Let the Conservatives dictate it and we’ve lost already.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers


Catherine said...

Good comment.

As always.

Shawn in Montreal said...

Very good points...

sharonapple88 said...

For a positive ad -- how about continuing with the "We're listening" theme and make Trudeau the face of the ad. We'll know how desperate the Conservatives are if they create attack ads for the Youth and Amateur Sport critic. ;)

clarkd said...

Very good suggestions and as a Conserative, I hope your party doesn't do what you argue for.

I would just like to remind everyone, it was the Liberals that made a good man like Mr Stanfield into a laughing stock (when I was just a kid) and many have said he was the best Prime Minister that never was.

Does everyone forget the ads that Martin ran that said the Conservatives would have soldiers on our streets and the continual slander that Conservative policy is dictated by the US? Liberals are the masters of character assassination and distorted ads so if you get a little of your own medicine, it puts a smile on my face.

sharonapple88 said...

Liberals are the masters of character assassination and distorted ads so if you get a little of your own medicine, it puts a smile on my face.

Whoa, have you been away for the last few election cycles? The Conservatives have taken the torch in this regard. Dion. Ignatieff.

I suppose the ad is doing what most attack ads are said to do -- make your base happy.

As for Stanfield... modern day attack politics didn't come to Canada until the 1980 campaign (so says a book I have on political campaigns from 1972-2004), which was when Stanfield was out of politics.

Vancouverois said...

@sharonapple88: Actually, such an ad would make me think that it's the *Liberals* who must be desperate, if they're relying on the last name of the Youth and Amateur Sport critic.

Rae has to repeat his promise not to run for permanent leader. If he does, that cuts the legs out from these ads altogether. If he doesn't, then he's as good as saying that he will run - another broken Liberal promise.

clarkd said...

It is hard for me to put 30 years of following politics in Canada and the USA into a few lines but I can think of dozens of instances where the Liberals have unfairly characterized the Conservatives with ads in public and slander in the House of Commons. I just mentioned a few.

Whether an ad is an attack ad or just a "hard hitting" ad depends on your point of view. I obviously don't share your "point of view".

I haven't seen or heard Mr Harper say "fuddle duddle" to anybody, to their face or behind their back!

Unknown said...

Why respond at all? I don't want my money going towards any television or radio ads when an election is years away.

Carmichael said...

Why is it that Conservatives always seem to be living 30 or 40 years behind the rest f the world?

Trudeau and Stanfield for crying out loud.

Catch up !! The world has moved on.

sharonapple88 said...

@sharonapple88: Actually, such an ad would make me think that it's the *Liberals* who must be desperate, if they're relying on the last name of the Youth and Amateur Sport critic.

No doubt, it would be cheaper if Bob Rae made the official announcement.

And I was partly kidding about Trudeau for the ad. What amused me about the idea was the attack ads that would result. Yes, an attack ad on a critic for the third party in the house. I suspect that the Conservatives would love to have an excuse to do this. They do take swings at him that border on the bizarre at times. Example, Del Mastro's questioning whether Trudeau is a good Catholic.

Whether an ad is an attack ad or just a "hard hitting" ad depends on your point of view. I obviously don't share your "point of view".

We both bring out personal biases towards this.

According to Richard Gwyn, modern attack ads were imported from the US in the 1979 campaign, by the Conservatives, and by both parties in the 1980 campaign: "These were the sleaziest and nastiest in Canadian political history. The style was 'negative,' in the sense of bashing the opponent over the head with a club instead of promoting the candidate."

I haven't seen or heard Mr Harper say "fuddle duddle" to anybody, to their face or behind their back!

Harper does have a reputation for swearing and sulking according to John Ibbitson. (The sulking bit is interesting, especially with the rumours of Harper having locked himself in a bathroom in Brazil.)

kacob said...

You raise a very good point - what are the Liberals going to give Canadians if elected. For the past 6 years, we've thought it was all about the leader, and while the leader is the face of the party, there's been very little substance.

liberal supporter said...

They're attacking Rae because they know they will be running against him.

They know something we don't know. There won't be time for Rae to be replaced before an election is called. They broke the fixed election law before, and they'll do it again. They claimed they were forced then because of the minority situation. This time they will say they were forced to resign due to the coming indictments.

The Robocoup scandal is just getting started and they know it.