Today’s strategy: attack first

The race to define the next leader of the official Opposition is well underway, even before a victor is crowned this weekend.

The race to define the next leader of the official Opposition is well underway, even before a victor is crowned this weekend.

For New Democrats and Conservatives, the stakes are huge in the continuous election cycle that has been a hallmark of the Stephen Harper era.

The NDP, at its federal council meeting in January, set aside millions of dollars in a fund that will be used to introduce its new leader to Canadians, but more importantly, define him or her before the Conservatives move.

They want to attack first.

New Democrats have watched what Conservatives were able to do with former Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff — and are now trying to do to interim leader Bob Rae.

The NDP ads will be in the living rooms of Canadians within days of Saturday’s vote, the outline of the ads are ready to go and all leadership candidates have been informed of the plan and given their endorsements.

There is one key to the NDP strategy — get ahead of the Conservatives and put them on the defensive, rather than pushing back against an incoming Conservative missile.

New Democrats — and most objective observers — believe the Conservatives successfully branded Dion as a weak leader and successfully impugned the character of Ignatieff in questioning his motives in returning to Canada.

In both cases, Liberals, lacking both cash and speed, proved too slow to react.

The latest campaign against Rae could also prove successful because it is forcing the party to decide whether to spend limited funds defending an interim leader, with no permanent leader chosen until 2013.

The NDP vows it will make no such mistake.

There are few rules regarding attack ads. They surely don’t have to be artistic, but they must be simple, never subtle. There are no statutes of limitations.

The out-of-context laughter of Rae in the most recent Conservative ad deals with his time as Ontario NDP premier, sins committed two decades ago.

If they had video of him stealing the lunch of an elementary school classmate, they would have gone with that, too.

The ads can be absurd and over-the-top with only a fleeting acquaintance to accuracy.

Their effectiveness comes from repetition until this viral bumper sticker lodges in the brain of the disaffected and casual voter whose political “information” comes from such ads during televised sporting events and prime-time fare.

The most successful North American negative advertising in recent memory probably came from the Conservatives’ Republican brethren in the U.S., two years before Harper came to power.

So successful was a campaign by Swift Boat Vietnam veterans in accusing Democratic nominee John Kerry of inflating his war record, “swiftboating” entered the political lexicon as shorthand for a tough, negative ad that proposes to reveal a lie, when in fact it is telling a lie.

The Conservatives have been road-testing their anti-NDP message in the House of Commons almost since late leader Jack Layton’s electoral breakthrough of May 2011. Tory members have risen time and again in the Commons during a time slot for statements — which are not supposed to be used for partisan attacks — to proclaim the NDP is “not fit to govern.’’

They have parodied the New Democrats as the “No Development Party’’ each time an opposition member has raised questions about the Conservatives energy policies.

They were called the “No Defence Party” when New Democrats rose in the House to question the cost and delivery schedule of the Conservatives’ sole-sourced F-35 fighter jet purchase.

But no matter who is chosen Saturday, he or she will be painted as the friend of “Big Union Bosses,” a label wantonly tossed around by the Conservatives at every NDP objection to the government’s aggressive moves to intervene in collective bargaining at Canada Post and Air Canada, dating to last spring.

With more labour unrest looming in the wake of next week’s Ontario and federal budgets, expect that epithet to be tossed at whoever prevails at the convention.

The NDP goal is clear — get there first.

In other words, define or be defined.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.

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