The only thing more predictable than Justin Trudeau’s win in the Liberal leadership race was that it would be followed by Conservative attack ads. For those curious what the sequel to “Not a Leader” and “Just Visiting” would look like, the wait is over:
It should come as no surprise that the ad is repugnant, immature, and, as Stephane Dion would say – “completely unfair”. The central quote about Quebecers being better than everyone else is literally from a different century, and in the full interview, a 20-something Justin appears to be paraphrasing his father’s philosophy on why Quebecers don’t need special status.
We’ve come to expect out of context quotes from the Conservatives, but what is surprising is this level of slopiness. The companion ad uses the “just a teacher” attack, which merely gives Trudeau an opening to springboard onto his “what does Mr. Harper have against teachers” soapbox which he used to great effect last weekend. Oh, and that fake striptease footage that dominates the commercials? That came from a Canadian Liver Foundation fundraiser, where Justin’s little turn on the catwalk raised $1,900 to fight liver disease. Oops.
It’s safe to say the reaction to these ads will be overwhelmingly negative. But I’d remind people there was a chorus of criticism about the Dion and Ignatieff ads – they distorted the truth, they were “too mean” for Canada, they were sure to backfire. Some polls even showed Not A Leader landing with a thud among those who saw it. But those ads worked – even if no one wanted to admit they worked.
So it would be foolish for the Liberal Party to dismiss this latest assault with a wave and a laugh, or to assume the whole country has been innoculated against them by Trudeaumania. I suspect the core message – that Trudeau isn’t mature enough to be Prime Minister – will resonate with many Canadians. As Tom Flanagan would say, “it doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be plausible” – and no matter how ugly the packaging is, the message inside these ads is definitely plausible.
At every Liberal Party event I’ve been to over the past two years, someone has gotten up and said “we can’t let ourselves be defined by Conservative attack ads again”. Of course, Liberals said the same thing after the 2008 election, then snickered at the Just Visiting ads, confident they would backfire, given that Michael Ignatieff was far more popular and a far better politician than Stephane Dion. I don’t care how charismatic Trudeau is, he needs to hit back, and he needs to hit back immediately.
That said, I think lowering himself to Harper’s level, with a series of negative attack ads of his own, would be nearly as damaging as not responding. The challenge isn’t for Trudeau to define Harper, it’s to define himself – and by joining Harper in the mud, he’d dull the shine on his message of hope and optimism.
Rather, the Liberals need to open up the “leader defense fund” and get something on the air as soon as possible, where Trudeau talks directly to Canadians and addresses the ads – but then pivots to the positive. Have Justin remind Canadians the reason he’s in politics is to move beyond the nastiness that Stephen Harper revels in. Use the ads as a platform to share his vision, and talk about the future he wants for his children.
The Tory ads are clumsy and mean spirited, but we’ve seen clumsy and mean spirited work before. If Trudeau punches back quickly with a positive message then maybe, just maybe, these ads will serve as the foil he needs to prove he practices the type of optimistic politics Canadians long for.