There's an old rule in politics. Don't bet on the nice guys. Robert Stanfield was the princely example. Lost three in a row. Lester Pearson was too soft to ever win big. Joe Clark was characterized as wimpish, Stéphane Dion the same. The American Democrats had nice-guy Michael Dukakis, nice-guy Walter Mondale, nice-guy George McGovern and another skirt-wearer, nice-guy Al Gore. They all went down.
The toughs do better, no matter how ugly their politics. The Liberals of today are wrestling with this question as Stephen Harper's attack ads come right at their leader, Michael Ignatieff, in prime time. The carpet-bombing of the so-called carpetbagger has begun.
What to do? To retaliate or not to retaliate is the question. It's a critical one because the public image of Mr. Ignatieff is now being shaped.
There are some in the party who want to hit back hard. There are more, it seems, who feel they can rely on the sense of fair play of the Canadian people. As in, don't worry, they will realize the Prime Minister is a thug and vote our guy in.
Ujall Dosanjh, the British Columbia MP, is one who is sounding tough. "With these ads, the Conservatives are showing a streak of anti-intellectualism and xenophobia that goes back to their Reform roots. It needs to be confronted." The implicit suggestion, says Mr. Dosanjh, a Punjabi, is that if you've spent a lot of time outside the country - like he and Mr. Ignatieff have - you're less of a Canadian.
Justin Trudeau is putting out a similar message on his website. It's titled "Small Politics of Stephen Harper." The commercials, adds party stalwart Ralph Goodale, are "offensive and juvenile. These are the games Harper plays when 350,000 Canadians are out of work."
These Liberals are of the optimistic view that Canadians won't be hornswoggled. None of them want to respond in kind to the Tories. To do that, they say, would be to join them in the gutter. They sense the media and public reaction to the negative campaigning is hostile. Indeed, on the media front, they are getting considerable help. The attack ads are being panned by commentators on the left, the centre and even the right.
But the short-lived media reaction might not hold up against an onslaught of TV spots in the Stanley Cup playoffs that garner huge audiences. For the large swath of Canadians who pay little attention to politics, the message of the commercials could well carry greater weight.
How to respond, says Ian Davey, Mr. Ignatieff's top strategist, is a tough call. "Attack ads are generally effective if they are calibrated right," he said. "I think there is some issue here on the 'carpetbagger case,' which may not hold water as it might have in 2006." That was when Mr. Ignatieff, a new entrant to politics, made his first run at the leadership. With the global recession, with the arrival of Barack Obama, Mr. Davey feels that cheap political partisanship may have less of a place. "The big question is how much of a political paradigm shift are we in?"
Good question. In the meantime, Mr. Davey said his party is doing what he called the "sensible thing" and using the threat that the attack ads pose as a vehicle to raise money.
Pollster Bruce Anderson says that with his strategy, the Prime Minister is taking a bigger risk of alienating voters than he took when he successfully used negative ads against Stéphane Dion. "The public tolerated excesses of partisanship as long as the economy was healthy. But the stakes are far different now." The Liberals, he says, should contrast Mr. Harper's hyper-partisanship with their own leader, who is preoccupied with higher motives.
It may work. But a high-road strategy - the Grits have little money to run retaliatory ads anyway - is a gamble. Mr. Harper has been painted as a bully almost since Day 1 - and he has won two elections. He is well aware of the old adage about what happens to nice guys. There's another adage, more appealing to the Grits. It's from Heraclitus. A man's character is his fate.