Monday, July 13, 2009

Flanagan: Have the Liberals gone soft?

No doubt negative ads have a long history but there are negative ads and then there are negative ads. Many such ads give information out of context so as to lead people to incorrect conclusions. The Bloc Quebecois voting against minimum sentences for trafficking children under 18. The conclusion people probably would draw is that the Bloc is soft on the worst sort of criminals whereas their objection is simply that there are all kinds of cases and circumstances and judges should have the discretion over sentencing.
Flanagan notes that the Liberals too have used negative ads. This is a fine example of the tu quoque fallacy. Just because the Liberals do it too does not make the ads right.
Some negative advertising does indeed have significant informative functions. The attack ads against Ignatieff rightly point out that he was away from Canada much of his life and that he spoke of the U.S. as being his country but often attack ads are primarily emotive and the factual elements are often distorted or incidental to the intended emotive effect. Of course attack ads can go too far and have the opposite emotive effect actually causing people to feel more favorable to those attacked. Who knows maybe the Liberal righteous indignation at Conservative attacks ads may actually work. I doubt it though.

Have the Liberals gone soft? Why are they upset over attack ads?
Tom Flanagan
From Monday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Monday, Jul. 13, 2009 08:45AM EDT

See that your whole campaign is full of show, glorious and colourful; and see that your competitors are smeared with an evil reputation for crime, vice, or bribery.
- Quintus Tullius Cicero, 63 BC
These words come from the world's first campaign manual, reportedly written by the brother of the Roman statesman Cicero. Not much has changed since then. Election campaigns have always been, and always will be, both positive and negative.
Elections are an exercise in comparative judgment. Campaign professionals understand the need to give voters reasons to support their candidate and reject the others. It's pretty simple, really - about as obvious as the need for both running and tackling in a football game.
In modern Canadian politics, the Liberals have been the masters of negative campaigning. In 1988, they ran ads almost accusing Brian Mulroney of treason, of selling out Canada to the United States through the free-trade agreement. In 1991, Sheila Copps compared Preston Manning to David Duke, the former Louisiana Ku Klux Klan leader. In 2000, Warren Kinsella went on television to ridicule Stockwell Day's alleged (never demonstrated) belief in Young Earth creationism.
In 2004, the Liberals eked out a minority victory with wave after wave of negative ads about Stephen Harper's supposed “secret agenda” - hard to refute publicly because it was secret by definition. Showing the preternatural gift of prophecy, the Liberals also ran ads about the “$50-billion black hole” in the Conservative budget projections. There was no evidence for it in 2004, but it came true in 2009
Late in the 2006 campaign, the desperate Liberals released a suite of negative ads that backfired against them. Like every other tactic in politics, negative advertising is only effective if it is well executed. These ads were so far over the top that they were parodied by the late-lamented Frank magazine: “Is Stephen Harper the Antichrist? We just don't know. He refuses to talk about it. Now why would he do that?”
Since then, however, the tough-as-nails Liberal warriors have begun to sound like whiny schoolgirls, complaining about Conservative negative ads. Not only do they whimper when the Conservatives run their ads against Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, but they complain when the Conservatives attack the Bloc Québécois for having voted in Parliament against minimum sentences for trafficking in children under 18.
All these Conservative ads belong to the most moderate and usually most effective genre of negative campaigning. They focus on the public record, repeating the words and recounting the deeds of political opponents. Mr. Dion said it's not easy being a leader; Mr. Ignatieff was out of Canada for decades; the Bloc voted against Bill C-268. The ads contain no invented allegations, no exposé of private affairs, no attacks on family members - just the recall of past news stories.
So why are the Liberals so upset? Have they really gone soft? Actually, I suspect their response is more cerebral. ........................... So-called negative advertising is an integral part of informing voters so they can make up their own minds.
Tom Flanagan, a former Conservative campaign manager, is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

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