In the last few days, we've heard calls from various quarters, that the Liberals need to go negative against the Conservatives, particularly Stephen Harper, if we have any chance to win this election. It's actually a tricky proposition, because there is a natural tension between what Dion is trying to project and the perceived necessity of getting down and dirty.
I was surprised to hear, that some Liberals would be surprised to see the Conservatives actually go positive in this campaign. In many ways, changing gears and rising out of the gutter has a lot of appeal for Conservatives. The Conservatives have spent the last two and half years releasing nothing but attack ads, might be shrewd to pivot now, the damage done, and give Canadians the sense that there is another side to the equation. If you address Harper's key personal weakness, it is the sense that he is a hyper-partisan, with a mean spirited edged, why would anyone see it odd for the Conservatives to counter that perception with new found optimism? If early days are indication, it would appear the Conservatives have decided to add a decidedly positive tone to their campaign, and this may present problems for the Liberals going negative.
Dion has positioned himself as a man of honor, who doesn't want to engage in fear mongering and tearing down, a sense that he wants to rise above politics as usual. In many ways, that's an idealist view, and it remains to be seen if this approach is effective. However, there is a danger in the Liberals going entirely negative, because it runs counter to what Dion has argued, it could convey a sense of desperation- Liberals going negative because they sense trouble. You don't have to go back in history very far to see negativity backfiring on Liberal fortunes, which is why we should proceed with caution.
The only way I see a negative approach working, is if the Liberals highlight the Conservatives tactics, in a compare and contrast, a frame that becomes more problematic if Harper continues with the "feel good" ads. The Liberals can't get nasty, but they certainly can make the case that, despite the attempts to redefine the Harper government, their record demonstrates exactly what Canadians largely reject. The hypocrisy of running on accountability, then in practice becoming the most secretive and stifling government in Canadian history. That could well prove a powerful theme, simply because there are so many concrete examples to draw on, a fact which takes away the overtly negative attacks. In highlighting the Conservative record, Dion can then make his case, how he would do things differently.
I see no problem with ads in Ontario, containing juicy quotes from Flaherty and Harper, because it lead to a positive platform plank, that the Liberals want to partner with industry, the Liberals understand that the manufacturing base is critical to the Canadian economy, the Liberals would have been much more proactive when the warning signs were clearly seen.
Ads, and attack lines, that aren't simply about the Conservatives, but presented in such a way to demonstrate how the Liberals would approach issues differently, is the best way to hit the Conservatives hard, without simply "going negative". In other words, the Liberals can't adopt the former Conservative approach, just attacking wildly, while conveniently ignoring their own record, or their own programs. If we do go negative, it will be most effective, if the voter sees that it isn't simply politics as usual, but a way to show a positive alternative.
Should we go negative? Absolutely, but it can't be the "scary" framing, that simply tears down, without building towards something. Negativity must be presented within the concept of the Dion vision, in that way it has a better chance of resonating. Two cents.