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How Dirty Hands Win Campaigns

05/28/2013 12:17 EDT | Updated 07/28/2013 05:12 EDT
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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 their "best before" date.

Stephen Harper has been campaigning since he was first elected in 2005. 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, Mr. Harper has won three consecutive elections.

In both cases, almost two-thirds of voters in those elections cast a ballot for other parties. And 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 is 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 money has been spent promoting their political agenda and reinforcing their respective "brand." B.C. citizens were bombarded with a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign touting the "BC Jobs Plan". It was indistinguishable from the Harper Conservative "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 mischaracterisations. 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 Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the BC Liberals organized and executed a hit job on BC NDP leader Adrian Dix.

One BC Liberal operator, a 20-something paid staffer that used to be a staffer to 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 BC", and the immediate arrival of Armageddon should Adrian 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, attacks on the character, honesty, the 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.

Adrian Dix held steadfast in his determination to run a positive campaign that was predicated on talking policy, and keeping to the "high road." Ms. 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 their record. Twelve years in government, two of them as party leader, and the Dix's NDP didn't force Clark's Liberals to be accountable for any of it. He also took relentless body blows without any counter-punches 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.

BC Election Night Photos