Monday, March 05, 2007

Repeat after me

Westmount Liberal rightly takes the Libs to task for their misfiring message in response to the Cons' proud aversion to reality. But unfortunately, even a post supposedly trying to get the Libs back on track ends up far from what should be the core message:
The Liberal response, led by House leader Ralph Goodale, was that Harper is a bully.

Forget bully. Let’s call a spade and (sic) spade.

Stephen Harper is a liar who engages in deliberate, malicious character assassination.

An honorable (sic) Prime Minister would apologize for the harm he has caused.
Say you are sorry Steve. We are waiting.
The problem with both Westmount Liberal's post and the Libs' wider theme is that the message should cut off at "liar".

Much as the Libs would like to think otherwise, "Stephen Harper isn't nice to Liberals" is never going to be a winning campaign message. Nor is "I, personally, don't feel that Stephen Harper is particularly honourable, and I challenge him to prove me wrong." And even the "Stephen Harper is right-wing" message that Stephane Dion has tried to push should only be a secondary attack after the obvious critique of the Cons.

After all, we have plenty of evidence that the Con government is both disinterested in learning what facts exist, and entirely happy to make things up - either for political benefit, or simply for fun. Which may seem innocent enough for the occasional joke, but surely can't be an acceptable standard when a government responsible for the well-being of Canadians is dealing with meaningful policy questions.

So make the core message "(Stephen Harper)/(The Conservatives) can't be trusted". Provide examples. (Again, there are plenty.) Rinse. Repeat.

In addition to being a stronger initial criticism, the effect of such a line of attack is to devalue whatever response the Cons provide. If Harper delivers an apology demanded by the Libs on one of the "character assassination" issues, the implicit result is that the Libs' demand has been met and the issue is neutralized. And the Cons have nicely insulated themselves from the "right-wing" message for now by basing their policies largely on what the Libs already had in place.

But any response to "Harper can't be trusted" only invites more scrutiny as to the motives and deceptions of the Cons. Which in turn allows for the individual listener to speculate about what kind of harmful motivation might exist.

That's where messages like "right-wing" may be effective - as one possible interpretation of what lies below the surface. But the central point should be that even those who approve of Harper's policies as much as not still have reason to doubt every word out of his mouth.

Of course, for an added bonus, the line can be expanded to apply to policy areas once it takes root. "Stephen Harper can't be trusted with our environment." "The Conservatives can't be trusted with the well-being of our troops." And so forth.

Now, there's probably some reason why the critique hasn't been put at the forefront to date. That may be based on a concern that the Libs have enough doubtful statements in their own history to benefit, or a sense that the public simply doesn't buy that any politician can be trusted and thus won't punish the Cons for their fabrications, or a belief that it sounds too much like the "hidden agenda" line that's obviously run its course. And if the Libs want to ignore the line and leave it for the NDP, then hopefully Layton can capitalize on it to present himself as the alternative to a Lib/Con feud that only be seen as entirely missing the point.

But one way or another, the most obvious way to stop Harper seems to be to point out just how untrustworthy he and his party have proven to be. And the greatest failing of Dion's leadership and the Libs' supposed renewal is that they seem to be too eager to play on Harper's terms to highlight that message.

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