Daniel Veniez: A great campaigner doesn't smear opponents

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      It was once a maxim in politics that governments defeat themselves. They invariably run out of steam, get tired, complacent, arrogant. That is when mistakes are made and "scandals" erupt that devour government time, energy, and morale. Agendas—to the extent they even exist late in a government's life—are stale.

      It's why assorted iterations of the"change" mantra in campaigns are so potent and effective. Or at least they were.

      The "permanent campaign" and the rise of the professional class in the political-campaign industry have dramatically transformed that paradigm. They’ve given new hope and a new lease on life to incompetent and lethargic regimes.

      In British Columbia, coming on the heels of Gordon Campbell's abrupt departure after the HST debacle, Christy Clark led what is widely regarded as an undistinguished and rudderless two-year administration. Yet Clark's electioneering was so thoroughly incessant and calculated that she became known as "Premier Photo-Op". A couple of weeks ago, Clark won a majority after her party had been in power for 12 years, long after its "best before" date.

      Stephen Harper has been campaigning since he was first elected in 2006. Since that time, his government has been unfailingly on the ropes, not because of a particularly effective opposition, but because of self-inflicted wounds. Despite that, Harper has won three consecutive elections.

      In both cases, voter turnout was so low that less that a third of eligible voters voted for them. Yet they won, and won big.  

      The Harper/Clark model was created by the legendary Lee Atwater, who spent his entire career as a ruthless Republican operative. Black-ops, attack ads, deflection, distortion, distraction and denial, character assassination, and simply making stuff up on the fly was his stock and trade. For Atwater, politics was pure entertainment. He loved professional wrestling.

      "It's the only honest sport out there” because it was the only obviously dishonest one. When Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan went up against each other, it looked real, but everyone knew it was fake.

      Those same techniques and mindset came to personify the politics of cynicism that the Harper and Clark Conservatives have imported to Canada. Their style has been polarizing and driven by wedges designed to shore up their base.

      They haven't governed; their modus operandi is obfuscation and public relations. Untold millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent promoting their political agenda and reinforcing their respective "brand". B.C. citizens were bombarded with a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign touting the "B.C. Jobs Plan". It was indistinguishable from the Harper Conservatives' "Canada's Economic Action Plan". Their backdrops and messages are the same. Even their Tory blue colors are the same and so are the strategists behind them.

      Most charitably, they intentionally defined their political opponents through profound mischaracterizations. But more to the point, they lie as a matter of deliberate political strategy.

      More accurately, they were works of fiction. These meticulously designed and tested cartoons plant negative imagery in the consciousness of voters. Like their Ottawa cousins did with such devastating effect against Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the B.C. Liberals organized and executed a hit job on B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix.

      One B.C. Liberal operater, a twenty-something paid staffer that used to work for Michael Ignatieff—and destined to be a "lifer" in that world—said to me on Twitter that Christy Clark "won because she ran a better campaign".

      If a "better campaign" is defined by trying with all your might to scare the living hell out of citizens, highly dubious claims of a "debt free B.C.", and the immediate arrival of Armageddon should Dix become premier, then yes, it was a "better campaign". And that's the crux of the problem. Never mind that is was a "campaign" largely based on outright lies and attacks on the character, honesty, motivations, and integrity of a man wanting to serve the public through elected office. For the most part, the attacks were works of fiction designed to demonize the target and inject fear into the minds of target voters.

      Dix held steadfast in his determination to run a positive campaign that was predicated on talking policy, and keeping to the "high road". Clark never imposed such restrictions on herself. In the final analysis, that's why she won.

      And that should give us all pause. A political leader universally recognized for her cynicism and shallowness is today glowingly celebrated as a "great campaigner". There’s something dreadfully wrong with that picture.

      In an election campaign, an opposition party leader must compel a sitting government to defend its record. Twelve years in government, two of them as party leader, and Dix's NDP didn't force Clark's B.C. Liberals to be accountable for any of it. He also took relentless body blows without any counterpunches in the name of "staying positive".

      If Dix and Ignatieff have taught us anything, it is that opposition leaders must not allow themselves to become human piñatas in the name of the "high road". They have a solemn duty to hold governments accountable for their records. That means fully engaging in the fight, not being passive in the face of it. 

      Daniel Veniez is the former federal Liberal candidate in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. Follow him on Twitter @danveniez.




      May 28, 2013 at 10:53am

      What a great article. And soooo true!


      May 28, 2013 at 11:19am

      Great article
      One can only imagine if Clark has no qualms about repeatedly lying to us at every turn, what is going on behind the scenes.

      The lineup to the public trough continues.....God only knows what will be left of our province when she is done. As a woman, I am truly disturbed that she’s the caliber of individual representing women, and sadly our province. She is truly frightening and an appalling role model.

      Vince Kelly

      May 28, 2013 at 11:31am

      Franks magazine set a precedent by going after the bastard child of a former PM:)


      May 28, 2013 at 11:47am

      best article yet on the election, thank you. positivity in the rigid format is not helpful, rigidity is not helpful. creativity is helpful in a leader

      "A political leader universally recognized for her cynicism and shallowness is today glowingly celebrated as a "great campaigner". There’s something dreadfully wrong with that picture."

      Perfectly said

      Alan Layton

      May 28, 2013 at 12:11pm

      The bottom line is that she won. It doesn't matter how many names you call her, or if it's even warranted, the reality is that she won and the NDP were her best weapon. The NDP should take note, that you can't change civilization unless you win. The old adage that you "don't bring a knife to a gun fight" is, unfortunately, true.


      May 28, 2013 at 12:13pm

      Daniel, very well informed article. The one item you left out is the donation money spent by each party. The BCNDP purportedly raised more than ever before and in particular from the corporate sector too. Approx. $30 million spent on the campaign, while the BC Liberals are rumoured to have spent upwards of $120 million.

      The NDP is never going to outspend the BC Liberals, especially on a campaign where the fossil fuel industry had so much to lose. Are the NDP and any other progressive/left of centre party doomed to the ranks of the opposition from here on in?

      Rick in Richmond

      May 28, 2013 at 12:25pm

      Christy Clark won because Adrian Dix refused to fight.

      His stake on the "high ground" left 95% of the real ground up for the taking. She may be shallow and none-too-bright, but even Christy Clark understood what a gift the NDP gave her.

      The NDP needs to learn that they can do both. They can campaign on high ground policy and initiative, while at the same time taking it to the Liberals where it hurts the most.

      By refusing to attack the Liberals at their weakest, Dix gave them permission to do the same to him. And they did, over and over and over again. It was obstinately foolish, and predictable.

      Tommy Douglas hammered his opposition, and never let them forget it. For Tommy, his legendary "Mouseland" speech was a way of stopping his opponents dead -- with humour.

      Dave Barrett had the same gift. Time and again Barrett deflected the knives with humour, and changed BC forever.

      The NDP campaigned as if they were trying to teach the voters a civics lesson. The Liberals campaigned as if they were trying to win.


      May 28, 2013 at 12:43pm

      The bottom line is that Luka Magnotta won. It doesn't matter how many names you call him, or if it's even warranted, the reality is that he won.

      The bottom line is that Lance Armstrong won. It doesn't matter how many names you call him, or if it's even warranted, the reality is that he won.

      The bottom line, pal, is that winning doesn't amount to a steaming pile of crap when the winner is beneath contempt. That's when "winners" are just losers.

      As for "bringing a knife to a gun fight", how about if we just require politicians to bring brains to an intellectual fight? Would that work for you? Probably not.

      It's a race to 2nd.

      May 28, 2013 at 2:04pm

      The NDP's biggest mistake was acting like they're virtuous when the whole province knows they, and any politician for that matter, are full of BS. Dix's actions (memo gate and refusing to answer any policy questions for two years) simply weren't congruent with his campaigns rhetoric (taking the "high road", staying "positive", and clearly defining his "platform") which led to a level of mistrust that couldn't be overcome.

      Also, let's be honest Dix just plain f****ed up by flip flopping on the pipeline. What a gift to the Liberal's. He put his personal stamp of approval on every single attack ad with that arrogant move.

      Hopefully the NDP continues using election strategists who's greatest successes are 2nd place finishes.

      James G

      May 28, 2013 at 2:58pm

      A good article and great comments. There is truth in just about every one.

      I lean a little more to those by Alan Layton. The NDP did not have to go so negative but they needed to enter the conversation. So many New Democrats never look up from a position paper or a computer screen to see what is before them. Campaigns are won or lost on a human level and ironically, since they do have more compassion for those most in need, they are poor at relating on this level.

      I suspected the NDP would lose based on a dinner I had with friends at the end of April. We talked a bit about the campaign and one person mentioned his support for Christy Clark. The Campbell years were dismissed: "that wasn't her!" and the first image in everyone's mind was of the stop and go. Lemme tell ya, buds, we are all different behind the wheel. Those of us never in favour of the death penalty suspend that opposition when faced with a driver ahead of us who does not signal.

      Everyone at the table related to her in some way. Then she happened to have her young child in the car. At 5 am. And a journalist.

      Follow a little closer ... If I had been her campaign adviser and had seen that unfold with no journalist in the car, I would have begged her to repeat it with one in the back seat. Instead of Enbridge (unlike Brian Topp, I would have made sure footage of the Gulf Oil geyser was on NDP TV commercials daily), instead of the HST, instead of BC Rail, instead of the fudget budget with nuts (projections from LNG plants not yet built?) we had to deal with this image first.

      What voters saw was someone just like them. They saw a woman in charge. They saw a single parent. They saw a single Mom. Two days before the election was Mothers Day. The NDP simply was not playing politics at the same level the BC Liberals were and that lost them the election.