Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Dion Comparison

You don't want to comfort yourself in optimistic denial, because YES attack ads can and have worked in the past. However, it is equally suspect to just assume the impact, particularly using flawed points of references. Assuming adequate response, a sense of how one MUST deal with attacks, changes the analysis. John Kerry, or more rightly, the Kerry team was destroyed by attack ads, but you have to put them in context. John Kerry did ZIP in response, sat on his hands while his opponents pummeled him relentlessly. When you gauge the effectiveness, just as important as the attack, the way in which the targets actions assisted the narrative. If you were to write an essay on "what not to do" in response to negative campaigning, the John Kerry example would dominate your footnotes.

In Canada, Stephane Dion has now become synonymous with attack ads, and for obvious reasons his name keeps coming up in any discussion of these new negative ads. Again, assuming an adequate response from the Liberals, I'd like to point to a few reasons why the Dion comparison is flawed, in many ways irrelevant to the current situation.

I don't want to throw Mr. Dion under the bus here, but let's keep it real. The simple fact, everything surrounding Dion supported the "weak" premise. Let's not forget, that in the months following the initial attacks, Dion's leadership oozed weakness. The Liberals were hiding behind curtains during crucial votes, in every respect a TOOTHLESS tiger, a dynamic that reinforced itself time and time again. There was a reason the NDP referred to themselves as the "real opposition", further evidence of legitimate attempts to exploit the practical examples of Liberal impotence. This dynamic had nothing to do with the attack ads, but what's important here, the forever embarrassing abstaining routine in Parliament SUPPORTED the frame the Conservatives were selling. At every turn, this sense that Harper was getting the better of Dion, any bluster was squashed and the conclusion highlighted a sense of weakness. The ads found convenient real world example, our behaviour actually supported.

After Dion won the 2006 convention, it didn't take long for "anonymous" Liberals to emerge, and a very real sense that Dion didn't enjoy widespread support within his own party. Rather than rehash the reasons, what's relevant here, the way that particular reality undermined Dion's stature. Dion is "weak", not just a Conservative concept but one that displayed itself daily through the various actions of his own party. You have the Conservatives pushing the idea, but then people are bombarded with evidence that the notion is true, in this case a self-inflicted confirmation.

When Dion took the airwaves, made appearances, there is no question his demeanour and delivery were such that it became problematic. Dion wasn't particularly strong in QP, wasn't resonating, wasn't inspiring, wasn't projecting a sense of STRENGTH. Factor in awkward English, and it's not much of a stretch to see how people could make certain connections. While I think Dion would have made a great leader, there really wasn't much evidence to support real leadership characteristics, that extrapolated beyond partisan wants. Translation, Dion looked WEAK. Dion looked WEAK at the 2006 convention, easily the WORST speech I've ever heard from a politician (and to be honest, not much changed in 2009). All these independent facts had nothing to do with attack ads, our presentation volunteered reaffirmation.

I don't see much use in comparing what happened to Dion with what could happen to Ignatieff. The circumstances are so much different, as well as the lessons learned, that the analogy falls apart at almost every turn. The perception of Harper in 2009 is quite different that it was when he first went after the Liberals. Ignatieff enjoys a united party, better equipped, in a much better position to look a PM in waiting and project a strong presentation. Dion was handicapped on some many scores, none of which are really present now. Attack ads work, but the two classic historical examples both show that the targets after the fact actions and reactions, are almost as important as the opponents message. Each environment is unique, how said attacks are accepted a chief factor, everything put together makes any "template" somewhat meaningless.

Moving forward, apart from the lesson that you must respond, I see little need to reference Dion to highlight effectiveness, because none of the variables overlap. It's for this reason that I hesitate to just assume that attack ads work here, using Dion as evidence, because to be blunt, everything surrounding Ignatieff, all the factors in play, are more opposite than analogous. If, in the next few months, everything Ignatieff does happens to feed what the Conservatives are selling, I'll reaccess, but I just don't see it happening at the moment.

13 comments:

John said...

" don't want to throw Mr. Dion under the bus here, but let's keep it real. The simple fact, everything surrounding Dion supported the "weak" premise. Let's not forget, that in the months following the initial attacks, Dion's leadership oozed weakness."

The Liberals didn't support the Conservatives on a SINGLE vote till the fall of 2007 (the fall throne speech being the first one), your memory is false, you won't find a single media article or caucus person calling Dion "not a leader" until at least 7 or 8 months after he won the leadership.

The media dismissed the initial "not a leader" ads as ridiculous and non-sensical (rememder the Mercer paradies against them?) against Dion, this was the person who lead against the clarity act after all. The Liberals remained within a few points in every poll right up until Outremont. They were even at 30 points in Quebec until as late as May. Even you talked about how things remained "solid in Ontario" all the while.

It was after Outremont everything collapsed, go back and look at the articles, the "frame" of "not a leader" didn't take hold till MUCH MUCH later. Not to mention after the Green Shift they dropped that frame completely in favour of "not worth the risk" which was just about Dion's supposed "spending promises" (easily adaptable to anyone).

I don't think these ads against Iggy will work at all, the frame they are using here is just offensive, but if you are going to compare it to Dion may as well get your history right.

James Curran said...

Not to mention the press adores MI and couldn't stand the fact that virtually everyone of them was embarrassed that they didn't call the winner in 2006 (read Chantal Hebert). You certainly never found any evidence of any of them defending Dion as you do today with MI. He's a lucky man that MI.

I wouldn't underestimate the effect of this new round of ads. The Canadian voter has shown that these ads work for three straight elections. For us Liberals to assume that the rest of the 33 million Canadians know Michael is a fatal error.

As usual, if we leave the messaging up to the Conservatives, our leader is dead in the water. And the response to date of "they are spending money on partisan attack ads" while Rome burns is not the answer.

And acutally Steve, Dion won more seats in Quebec than what we had when he was chosen leader, so efffectively, he was beginning to resonate in PQ.

ottlib said...

It should be noted that Mr. Ignatieff has not voted against the government on any major bill since he took over. He has blustered and put the government on "probation" but he has still not been put to the test. By the criteria of your post that makes him weak.

I find it amazing that all of those anonymous Liberal sources stopped talking after Mr. Ignatieff took over. Coincidence?

Mr. Dion's public persona certainly had something to be desired. But being good in front of the camera does not necessarily mean he would have been a bad PM. Brian Mulroney exuded strength and charisma but as PM he almost tore the country apart and destroyed a once respectable political party.

Stephane Dion had some shortcomings, which you have articulated well many times. However, I wonder if he would have been able to overcome them if he would have actually had support from his party during his tenure? I guess we will never know.

As for Mr. Ignatieff's I wonder if he would be in such a strong position if he was dealing with anonymous Liberal sources whispering about his past positions on Iraq, torture and the fact he has spent most of his adult life working abroad?

If he was I can almost guarantee you that all of those editorials and columns you highlighted in your previous post would be saying somthing much different.

Steve V said...

John

The attacks ran in early 2007 and went on from there. I said the "months following the initial attacks", so I'm not sure your nit picky crap about the 6-7 months is really noteworthy. Yes, Outremont furthered, my argument is EVERYTHING furthered the frame. And, if you want to believe the Libs had any potential in Quebec with Dion, then I don't know what to say.

As for the polls, yes were close, but Dion was also behind Layton on PM, which is another DIFFERENCE here.

Yes, the media initially rejected those ads, although not as vehemently as we've seen here. However, as we went forward, the "not a leader" found ample support, because the Liberals were weak, and Dion was weak as well.

Just one final point, if you're going to get on your revisionist history horse, maybe you might want to be accurate. There wasn't ONE poll in the months prior to Outremont that pegged the Liberals at 30% in Quebec, more like barely 20%.


"And acutally Steve, Dion won more seats in Quebec than what we had when he was chosen leader, so efffectively, he was beginning to resonate in PQ."

James, that's simply wishful thinking. Dion had a ceiling in Quebec, his debate performance helped, but let's not overstate our "success".

Also, people might remember, that Dion was the media DARLING all the way through the leadership race.


"He has blustered and put the government on "probation" but he has still not been put to the test. By the criteria of your post that makes him weak.

I find it amazing that all of those anonymous Liberal sources stopped talking after Mr. Ignatieff took over. Coincidence?"

Ottlib, that's just nonsense. Look at where the Cons went on the budget, and try to tell me it was the same "caving" frame? Come on.

I don't find it amazing, it's a testament to people actually believing in the leader. Sure, we can blame everyone but Stephane, but the fact of the matter he never displayed the ability to rally people behind him, his bad political instincts allowed fissures to fester. That's just reality, it was two way street.

Anonymous said...

I think sometimes things are over-analysed.

Dion didn't connect - plain and simple.

And, you can't keep going back - time to move on.

Obama didn't do negative campaigning, but he did immediately respond when he was attacked. The lesson was learned after the Kerry mess.

Dion took the high ground, but that doesn't mean you can't hit back.

Steve V said...

Just for clarity, the last poll prior to Outremont had the Libs at 16% in Quebec.

Joseph said...

I think your post is very good, though I also believe each comment does add a lot to the picture.

I think it would be a mistake to assume the "effete carpetbagger" image couldn't become a problem down the road. The key is for Ignatieff and the Liberals to remain focused on maturity in governance and that adult approach making government work for people.

Any response cannot be simply a tit for tat attack, which is why I would avoid the "here is what Harper said in 1994 (tempting though it may be). Instead, it must reinforce the two messages I mentioned above - the need for a mature, responsive government and policies that work for Canadians.

The need to unify the country is a good message as well. The important thing is to be seen as the adult party in Ottawa.

One minor note on Kerry was that not only did he allow the attack ads to chip away at him, when he finally did respond he was too easily established as angry and irrational. He went from saying nothing to looking petty and not controlled. What he thought would be perceived as righteous anger instead turned into a negative.

McCain had a similar problem in both 2000 and 2008.

Pelosi seems to be having the problem now. I'm not a big Pelosi fan in general (her public appearances), but I wanted to applaud her press conference this week. Yet she is just getting slathered for it now, and suddenly the focus is on her and not the deception of the Bush administration. Why? Because she responded erratically, or in a way that can be spun as erratic. Sadly, but in this day and age that is what can happen easily.

So any response - and there should be a response - must be balanced and precise and mature.

Recognize that attack ads can work - and sadly often do - but respond smartly and with a sense of control and moderation.

I think the real problem the conservatives have is their "attack" is actually pretty weak. I don't think most Canadians are worried about the Canadian content of Ignatieff. The fear of some outsider imposter is a pretty vague concept on which to land a hit.

That's why

Joseph said...

the last two words are extraneous, I figured I had said enough already ;)

Steve V said...

"I think it would be a mistake to assume the "effete carpetbagger" image couldn't become a problem down the road. The key is for Ignatieff and the Liberals to remain focused on maturity in governance and that adult approach making government work for people. "

Joseph, I completely agree. I said a couple times in this post, that we have to respond and offer a counter view. My only point here, is just assuming the same dynamics are at play now as they were under Dion- they simply aren't, by almost every measure it's a different story.

ottlib said...

"Sure, we can blame everyone but Stephane, but the fact of the matter he never displayed the ability to rally people behind him, his bad political instincts allowed fissures to fester. That's just reality, it was two way street."

No Steve, it is just your reality.

I have acknowledged Mr. Dion's shortcomings and I have acknowledged that they certainly contributed to his downfall.

However, you cannot ignore the fact he was undermined from the beginning by those in his own party.

You mention he had the inability to rally his party. What do you do when they will not be rallied? What do you do if they are not happy with the results of the 2006 convention and work against you no matter what? It is a well known secret in this town who the main culprits were. So would Mr. Dion have had a better time if he would have turfed Mr. Ignatieff from caucus? At least it would have brought those anonymous sources out into the open.

All of that contributed to what happened during his tenure. He did not mount that great of an opposition. True enough, but in order to do so you have to be able to focus on your primary political opponent and not be distracted by putting out fires created by your own erstwhile supporters. Mr. Ignatieff is mounting an effective opposition. Part of that is him but he is also effective because he can focus on it and not have to watch his back all of the time.

The Conservatives went where they did on the budget because of what Stephen Harper did to himself and not because of Michael Ignatieff. Stephen Harper was still dealing with the fallout of his actions from before Christmas and that is why he conceded to Liberal demands. And when push comes to shove the Liberals have voted with the government, since January, on a succession of confidence motions. Exactly what you condemn Stephane Dion for doing and exactly for the same reason, to avoid an election.

Steve V said...

"No Steve, it is just your reality."

I never said that Dion wasn't undermined, but strong leaders are able to keep people together, are able to inspire the grassroots and show the political instincts necessary to hold off detractors. It's not like the Liberal Party was a united bunch prior to Dion, and I'll use all those "leaders" as examples of how you navigate and survive in the shark tank. Blaming everyone but Dion is just a copout.

Anyways, I didn't really intend this to turn into a Dion bashfest, merely trying to get rid of the lazy intellectual comparisons between then and now.

Steve V said...

ottlib

Just to clarify, you quoted my "two way street" comment, then in your own comment you acknowledged Dion's "shortcomings", how they led to his "downfall". Are you really arguing something different than what I said?

Anonymous said...

When are people going to give Dion a break and quit talking about it?

Not fair to Dion to obssess over it continually.

Truth is - we will never, ever know who would have really won the leadership bid because of Kennedy and the backroom deals.