Friday, September 05, 2008

Should The Liberals Go Negative?

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.


Top Can said...

Hey, Harper wants to go negative? Why shouldn't we? There's no way he could turn around and accuse us of negative campaigning, when he's the one doing it in the first place!

Steve V said...

Sure, but the key is to not look the same, where voters can't distinguish between styles. In a way, we could actually give Harper cover, but appearing to condone the same tactics, which is why it has to be done carefully.

Tomm said...


This is a good point. The CPC has a 10 point lead and is talking up goodness and light. They will likely do a high road campaign (its short anyway) and feel people's pain, unless they are forced to get dirty, like a drop in the polls would cause.

If the LPC does negative campaigning, all the negative CPC campaign materials will be lost in the new focus for the two parties and it may very well backfire for the LPC.

I agree with you that they should only do negative mass advertising with care, and likely focus on places where the high risk has a big enough reward, such as Ontario.

Good post.

Jerry Prager said...

My preference would be for no election, Dion should go to the GG on Sunday and offer to form a coalition government, green solutions are what matter, not partisan politics.
If he doesn't do that then you should continually compare him to John McSame, since 80 something percent of Canadians would vote for Obama, show pictures of Stephen with Bush, refer to this as an illegal election every time you use the word election, line him up with big oil and big money intent on doing nothing as long as possible on the environment and then bring in non-partisan talking heads like Suzuki and economists to defend the green plan (don't want get sued for calling it a green shift). And finally on the leadership issue, Dion is not afraid of surrounding himself with powerful, intelligent cabinet ministers, Harper is. That's a leadership style issue of significant importance.

ALW said...


You’re dancing a lot here, but frankly I understand why: how tacky would it look to launch another campaign of fear against a guy who just ran ads saying his greatest life experience is being a father?

You will of course say it’s partisan of me, but this is exactly the bind Harper was trying to put Dion and friends in. By doing all the typecasting of Dion long, long ago, and having him reinforce it with his own actions - reversing positions on issues, rolling over on votes - the Tories don’t need to do any more convincing to the public about Dion’s weaknesses. Yet Dion’s strengths - honesty, earnestness - aren’t ones that can be easily leveraged in a negative campaign. But, as the Grits own pollsters have identified, the key to this campaign is attacking Harper’s leadership metrics, which are light years ahead of Dion.

So the Grits face a choice: go negative and end up making their own leader look absurd, or stay positive and leave Harper unscathed. It’s a trap, and I for one will be impressed if the Grits can find their way out of it.

Jerry Prager said...

Typo, Harper IS NOT comfortable sharing power with anyone.

Steve V said...

"You will of course say it’s partisan of me"

That's only because you've demonstrated no capacity to develop any independent thought, that deviates from party progaganda. Not my fault for noticing. Your post today is proof positive of my point. I just don't care...

Steve V said...


I agree on the team theme, and this is a small way to skirt the leadership gap.

Jerry Prager said...

Steve, it's not a gap once it's been crossed or closed.

Steve V said...


I think he can close the gap, the bar so low, that Dion has room to exceed expectations. I just don't see that as a lost cause at this point, and if people are paying attention, you will note that Dion is much more in command of late, more forceful, sort of like the guy we saw in the summer of 06, and that guy is effective.

Jerry Prager said...

Steve, Besides, a keystone may be slightly larger than the rest of the stones in an arch, but it's all that is required to hold the weight of all the stones above it, whether its a window, door or bridge arch.

Gayle said...

Steve - I agree with your post.

I was thinking about this last night after reading the Toronto Star article urging Dion to go negative.

In my view, pointing out facts is not negative. Taking a man's words from a debate totally out of context, calling his tax shift a "tac oneverything" is negative advertising because they are lies.

Pointing out Harper broke his promise on fixed election dates, income trusts, senate appointments etc - they are true. How does Harper campaign on his senate reform when he "abused" the senate appointment system within a week of winning the election?

These facts demonstrate a man who cannot be trusted - who will say and do anything to win votes.

JimmE said...

Go Negative? - on the personage of the present PM - NON!
Go Negative? -on their record, flip-flops, & BSCSDD*?


* - Back Stabbin' Cork Screwin & Dirty Dealin'

Steve V said...


The Liberals certainly don't have to be on the defensive, for their plan, when their opponent scores an F. Take it too them hard on the environment, it's ridiculous to allow a paper tiger to continually show his teeth.

Steve V said...

One thing I would like to see, the Liberals take the gloves off in Quebec. Even if it doesn't draw people into their column, it would at least stop any move to the Conservatives. Dion, like it or not, has been consistent in his beliefs, to his own detriment. Contrast that, with Harper's opportunism, attempting to curry favor, a co-ordinated, transparent attempt to appeal to Quebecers, with the soul motivation not about aspirations, but POWER. Ask the question, do Quebecers really believe Harper has their interests at heart, or are they a means to his personal ends. Harper is a complete fraud on Quebec, it's about time we call him on it, and in this province, we really have nothing to lose.

Aaron said...

There is no point in selling hope if you are to concede the Conservative's ridiculous posturing that everything is going fine.

There is no desperate need for transparency if you do not know that this is the most secretive government we have ever had.

There is no need for more honesty if you are not aware of the Cadman insurance policy scandal and the IN-and-OUT money laundering scheme.

There is no need for greater action on the environment if you buy John Baird's BS.

You might even believe that Harper is doing well on the economy if you are not made aware of the wild overspending and the negative impacts of the GST cuts instead of income tax cuts and if you're attention is not drawn to the neglect (disdain even) the Conservative government toward the manufacturing sector.

Who needs hope if everything is going ok? It's not going ok. Stephen Harper and his cabinet are a bunch of incompetents.

Greg said...

Should The Liberals Go Negative

Only if they want to win. This has been another episode of simple answers to simple questions.

In all seriousness, for all his evilness, Karl Rove is right about one thing. Go after the other guy's strength. In this case Harper. Cut him to pieces and the Conservatives have nothing. His weakness is his saying one thing and then doing something else. Coyne had it right last night on At Issue, the guy is a dodger. Play that message 24/7 and the Tories are done. However what do I know? I am voting for another party.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I just posted on Scott's blog, before I even saw your posting on the same topic. I like what you have to say. Here is my short version which I think is a similar vision as yours, Steve:

Highlighting the failures and misleading acts of the Conservative government is the only way the Liberals can win this election. That can be done forcefully and effectively without going off the deep-end. The message needs to be tied into a larger theme of how government ought to operate as a whole, and how parliament should function (show the contrasting visions clearly).

There are lots of people across Canada who have been waiting for the Liberals to go on the offense. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that it is individual’s anger on any number of issues that have held the conservatives back from gaining real traction with the Canadian public.

A sensible policy platform is required, of course, and discussing it during the election is fine. But just laying that out will NOT be enough to win. If this campaign becomes an exercise of soft-peddling, people will not feel the impetus to change the status quo. And that ho-hum approach could play to the conservatives, who might end up with something more.

Anthony said...

I dont see how the Liberals have much of a choice at this point.

They need to go negative against the NDP as well. They need to point out how vote splitting will ENSURE a harper majority this time with less than 40% of the vote.

The only contribution of the NDP in the past three years hass been to deride the Liberals to the benefit of Stephen Harper.

Dion is seen as a weak leader. If he gets up and comes out swinging (the Obama and Palin way!) then Dion can make up some of that lost ground. He needs to show he wont be pushed around.

And Steve, Leger released a survey with 1000 respondents in Quebec, confirming the CROP numbers.

Libs lead in MTL, Tories lead in Quebec City (50-20) and 34-33 for the BQ outside of both cities.

Given the difficulties of the LPCQ right now (it makes Outremont look like a well-oiled machine) it wouldnt surprise me if the Tories can rally that federalist vote outside of Montreal.

900ft Jesus said...

like jimme said.

I completely agree with you Steve V. There's a difference between fighting dirty and bringing to light the negative aspects of an individual or party.

Stick to facts, show where they can lead - realistically - and explain clearly what you offer as an alternative.

I wouldn't support any party that engaged in nasty dirt ads, and from what I've read of Dion, he won't go there.

Harper has done so much that is negative, it needs to be addressed. That's fair play, and responsible politics to point those things out.

From what I read in the news today anyway, the soft, fuzzy, misty-eyed Harper ads aren't going to be all that convincing anyway. Too "schlitzy" as one journalist said.

Scotian said...

One must remember there are two ways to go "negative", and one of them is Harper's preferred way, that of the politics of personal destruction which I think is something the Libs need to avoid as much as humanly possible. However, the other method is that of contrast, and there Harper and his CPC government is very vulnerable both on a policy level and on Harper's so called leadership qualities and that is where the Libs need to hit hard at this government in an election. For example, how many of Harper's promises in the last election cycle did he not only not follow through but do the opposite with once in power? I can think of several off the top of my head from the no appointing Senators, not taxing income trusts, not having a more open and accountable approach to governing, etc. Use his and his party's own words against them from the last campaign and thus show that Harper has a proven record of saying one thing and doing another.

There is also the way he tried to dismantle the Wheat Board despite assuring Canadians that he would not do so, especially given the way he tried was inherently anti-democratic. I mean really, this is just off the top of my head and without going to the many really scandalous things like the in and out scheme, the Cadman vote buying attempt and other serious scandals the Harper CPC is currently trying to hide/bury before they become too public to ignore. Take his attempts to sue the Libs and using the tools of government to help in that libel suit, a truly unprecedented act in our history by any PM. Then there are the ways he has attacked the very foundations of how our democracy is structured to work, and how he has tried to act like a majority in a minority position, and his infamous handbooks on how to impede and impair the ability of committees to work since he lacked majority status on those committees.

In other words there is plenty of material for hard hitting contrast ads that clearly show Harper and his CPC is dangerous to Canada and to the public institutions that we as a society clearly place value upon. One does not have to go to the kind of attack ads Harper favours to "go negative" on him, and by doing so and staying within documented factual reality one avoids acting like Harper in this respect, something Dion has publicly stated he would not do, thereby showing the difference between the two leadership styles yet again.

After repeated examples of Harper's my way or the highway style of governing with the damn the torpedoes approach I suspect this might sell far better than many within the CPC would believe possible. Harper has already shown himself capable of many dangerous acts of abuse of power with his minority, if one shows this and points out that with the power of a majority he could do truly irreversible damage to our fundamental institutions of governance (like what they wanted to do in terms of letting industry regulate itself in the food inspection business as one recent example just how much such an approach can harm Canadians) One can destroy Harper in his so called strength and do so in a manner that is legitimate contrasting and not the politics of personal destruction Harper has shown himself to favour.

Good post Steve V.

Koby said...

The Liberals need to go negative in a big way.

1) run ads painting Harper as a mean spirited bully and promote viral internet ads doing the same

2) Attack Harper’s economic record repeatedly

3)Highlight Harper’s broken promises

Watching the Liberals talk up the green shift is no more interesting than watching paint dry. "Tax things we want less of and tax less the things we want more of" -- thanks guys, but you do know there is no evidence whatsoever that the Liberals own the environment or that environment is the issue. Move on to other things.

Steve V said...


Welcome back :)

One way to look at any attacks, we only really have one target. The Conservative campaign is a singular approach, Harper, Harper and then some more Harper. The good news for the Liberals, not only do we know where to aim, but we also know that should the attacks work, there is NOTHING left for the Conservatives to fall back on. There are tactical advantages to this dynamic.