Scorching the competition
Sometimes it’s just tough to toss out the old playbook.
After all, the dog-eared tome has served so well, because it is now common knowledge that Michael Ignatieff didn’t come back for you and Stéphane Dion wasn’t a leader.
So, surely, Justin Trudeau must be in over his head. It has been decreed.
The fact that this playbook is still being used means Conservatives, somewhere, somehow, must believe that this game is still worth pursuing and the desired results are out there.
It is too early to suggest the tactics, widely derided, will not ultimately get the Conservatives to where they want to go.
Conventional wisdom will tell you Trudeau is on the ascendancy and this is frightening Conservatives, as evidenced by their over-the-top torch jobs on his judgment and character.
It is also becoming conventional wisdom that it is time for the Conservatives to change their strategy where the leader of the third party is concerned.
That first part of conventional wisdom is true, at least when polling data and byelection results are crunched.
The second part of that wisdom also appears grounded in reality, because if not exactly frightened, Conservatives certainly see a threat, given the attention the governing party lavishes on the man.
But the third part of that equation may not be all it seems.
What if the attacks are working, at least to the extent that Conservatives will have planted sufficient doubt about Trudeau’s judgment and ability to lead when Canadians really start paying attention next year and are, for the first time, viewing the Liberal leader as a potential prime minister?
It is unwise to dismiss the strategy of proven winners and the Conservatives under Harper are the only proven winners among the three parties seeking to form the next government.
Trudeau is a much tougher target than Ignatieff or Dion — he is the closest thing we have to a celebrity in politics — and this teardown exercise is obviously taking more time and effort.
There is no denying the effort. Conservatives rush in with gasoline and a blowtorch at every stumble, real or imagined, seeking to turn a Trudeau spark into a conflagration.
To be sure, the Liberal leader often provides the match.
Many of the attacks were reactions to words coming out of his mouth.
He has been accused of being soft on terror, siding with terrorists, offering nothing of substance, admiring the Chinese government, making light of the situation in Ukraine, plotting to sell pot to children and waiting for the budget to balance itself.
Television ads have delivered the hint of pixie dust on the screen.
Even on the byelection night, in which Trudeau’s Liberals captured Toronto’s Trinity-Spadina riding and increased the party’s vote in three other ridings, Conservatives stubbornly hewed to their message, again claiming (somehow) he was “in over his head.”
The latest salvo came this week when a Trudeau candidate in Mississauga was accused of attacking Israel on his Facebook page, proving, in the view of Richmond Hill Conservative Costas Menegakis, that Trudeau drew false equivalence between terrorist belligerents and a democracy defending itself.
The candidate, Omar Alghabra, says he was merely expressing sympathy for innocent civilians on both sides of the Israeli-Hamas hostilities and Trudeau issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the Hamas rejection of a ceasefire.
The Liberal statement mirrored the government stand, calling on Hamas terrorists to cease their rocket attacks immediately.
According to one published report this week, the Conservative Party of Canada spent $1.5 million on advertising in the past year to take down Trudeau.
In ridings where he has been caricatured as a pot-selling stalker after our kids, the Liberal vote went up, but in politics, sadly, there is no such thing as over-the-top attacks or advertising.
They might be mocked by pundits, but ever since George W. Bush rewrote John Kerry’s war record midcampaign a decade ago — a tactic now forever known as Swift Boating — we know there is no attack so audacious that it cannot stick if not aggressively repelled.
Right now, the Conservative government looks shopworn, trapped in old thinking, lashing out at enemies and giving the back of its hand to critics.
But the Trudeau offensive keeps an enemy on the minds of the faithful and helps the financial bottom line.
We won’t know until next year whether the Trudeau gambit is a government going to the well once too often or walking a tried-and-true path.
By his campaign performance, his need to find message discipline, rebut attacks and look substantive, Trudeau will provide the answer.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.