Bush, Edwards, and Stephen Harper
So what can John Edwards and George Bush take away from Stephen Harper’s experiences? First, that negative campaigning may be a vital tactic, but is one that used alone will not guarantee success. In fact, what Harper demonstrated throughout this last election is that he had the advantage in this department and still managed to flounder, badly. By the time electioneering kicked-off, Harper looked to be the candidate of change, the newer alternative, perhaps the standard-bearer of the next generation. Martin, on the other hand, seemed tired, vulnerable, even older than his years, ripe for retirement. Some in the local Vancouver media took to comparing Martin to the aged boxer, washed up, set for one last hurrah, but hoping silently for that one well-placed knock-out punch that might enable the Prime Minister to claim ultimate defeat while still clinging to a shred of honour and dignity. Once more it remained to be seen if the Tories could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
As the campaign unfolded, Harper jabbed with the better-produced negative TV ads. The Tories zeroed in on Liberal fiscal-mismanagement, highlighting spending manias that included a projected $2 billion on a gun registry, a project that got off the ground with a proposed modest budget of about a couple million dollars. How could the Liberals confuse billions and millions? Why wasn’t the program halted at the very first signs that spending would be spiraling out of control? Every financial crisis and scandal found its way into Tory advertising, with a series of ads featuring janitors and office workers shredding and composting stacks of cash, landing the most solid blows. The message was clear: You, the hapless Canadian taxpayer, now know exactly what Paul Martin is doing with your sacred tax dollars. The Tories continued, saying that Liberal mismanagement of vital programs, notably healthcare, would threaten societal sacred cows.
For a time the Liberals seemed to succumb. Eventually they countered with their own negative ads, but with a series that appeared laughable. The message was that the Tories stood in variance with core Canadian values. One production featured a Canadian flag waving in the foreground, disintegrating as a voice-over explanation of what a Conservative government would mean for the country boomed. Canadians, not known for their rabid nationalism, probably didn’t much care about images of a decaying symbol, but maybe, just maybe, that was enough to get our attention and soften us up for the second phase of Liberal messaging. And so on to the second lesson.
I don’t recall any of the Liberal attack ads producing a groundswell for Martin. While Liberal messages may not have been as visceral as their Tory counterparts, they did the spadework for what was the next, complementary phase of the Liberal strategy. Here Martin’s campaign team harnessed pessimism. It was not enough to merely attack Harper; it was vital to make certain that after doing so as many voters as possible would become pessimistic about their personal fortunes and future under a Harper-led regime. While the Tories failed to follow through, the Liberals told women their right to choose would be in danger of being revoked, and the Conservative Party suddenly had to confront the abortion issue. The message was clear: vote Tory, find yourself with a government unfriendly to Canadian values, and in the end your individual rights may be extinguished. This aspect of the campaigning became unrelenting. Healthcare was next. Here the Liberals alleged the Tories would privatize the healthcare system, making two-tiered medicine perhaps only step one in a long game that would make health unaffordable and ruinous for the average citizen. And so it went, on and on. The Liberals said the Conservatives stood for radical right-wing religious values, which not only excludes the majority of Canadians, but guaranteed Harper and his Cabinet would support a legislative agenda that threatened to undermine individual liberties and personal freedom. The Conservatives responded with nothing; some off-the-cuff comments by renegade Tory candidates seemed to confirm there was more to Liberal assertions than hot air, and in reaction to the Martin juggernaut Harper did his best impression of the proverbial deer staring into the oncoming headlights.
What the Liberals at last managed to do in 2004 was to adopt, successfully and totally, a campaign strategy for a culture that refines the old dictum “all politics is local,” to the point where it’s best rendered: “all politics is personal.” Since the end of the Second World War Anglo-North American cultures have moved ever closer to the point where any successful politician had to be most adept at gauging how any potential voter would react at a personal, visceral level to any policies and programs presented. It was in 1980 that Republican Ronald Reagan understood this entirely, confronting the electorate and introducing his own political revolution by merely asking “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Not only did Reagan’s insight into the personal nature of politics ensure that incumbent Jimmy Carter would be drubbed at the polls, but it kicked off a quarter century that continues to see contenders for political office vying in attempts to recapture the impact of that formula. In Canada, it is almost a ritual for leaders to denounce American-style campaigning. What election 2004 demonstrates is that we Canadians do not so much object to US-style politicking; it may instead be the case that the substance or content of our personal politics may be at variance. But make no mistakes, as the actual campaigning style has crossed the border into the Great White North.
So what of Edwards? As a vice-presidential candidate, he is far from likely to carry the decisive impact on voting day. Yet Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry is taking on some serious risk having the South Carolina Senator on the ticket. Edwards is now being compared with former President Franklin Roosevelt, and American media seem to be drawing the parallel with greater frequency these days. This is no accident, with Edwards himself having inaugurated the trend. It seems he backs away from no opportunity to either mention or quote FDR, a practice he’s been at for some time. Somehow I seem to recall first noticing this late last year, and indeed a quick look back at his remarks to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club back on 12 December 2003 proves I’m likely right. Back then Edwards said: “More than 70 years ago, in the heat of his 1932 campaign, Franklin Roosevelt came before the Commonwealth Club and delivered one of the great campaign speeches in American history. Looking out upon our nation in economic and political crisis, FDR said, ‘Failure is not an American habit; and in the strength of great hope we must shoulder our common load’” [Edwards remarks posted at http://www.johnedwards2004.com/page.asp?id=436
]. FDR is an icon, and among the greatest American leaders. The problem is that he belongs to a different age, and I suspect that attempting a close personal identity with a figure not only of a bygone era, but who impacted policy prior to one’s birth is a great gamble. Collectivist notions such as ‘the economy,’ ‘society,’ and ‘commonality’ [“common load”] helped FDR but are abstractions and potential obstacles in an age of “all politics is personal.” Dredging them up may serve to either bore or alienate voters. Is this something John Kerry can afford?
And what about President Bush? In some respects, his job and his lesson courtesy of Stephen Harper are remarkably easy. While I’m no futurologist and making no predictions about landslides, and while I do understand that events can intercede between now and November, a Bush victory in Florida and much of the rest of the country would fail to shock me. I suspect that Bush’s strategy at this stage should be simplicity. First, lead off with a negative campaign, but not to worry if the knocks on Kerry aren’t as effective or on-target as what the Democrats produce. The aim between here and maybe September is just to use negative campaigning as a way of softening up the opposition. From then on, the purpose is to convince the voting public to grow pessimistic about a future under Kerry’s leadership. It isn’t clear to me at this point that going past evading Iraq, playing up terrorism, and asking “do you feel safer now than you did four years ago?” is necessary.
Back in 1980 the Great Communicator taught the lesson the hard way to Incumbent Jimmy Carter. It may have taken a while, but 2004 shows Paul Martin has learned well. Nothing lasts forever, and November 2004 will demonstrate whether or not there are signs pointing to the demise of the period I’m calling the Era of “All Politics is Personal.” But in the meantime, I’ll return to how personal politics has shaped foreign policy.
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Bush, Edwards, and Stephen Harper
Pessimism and negative campaigning are not the same things, though they are intertwined. Any political leader who fails to understand this, and the subtleties that bind these concepts, isn’t likely to hold high office. If by some fluke he/she finds him/herself in government, he or she can rest assured of not remaining there long. I’ll return to pessimism and negative campaigning later.
At least on the surface July has provided a number of important stories and events for observers of Canadian foreign policy to sift through. On the 20th of the month, Pierre Pettigrew became the country’s Foreign Minister, an eventuality that saw former minister Bill Graham moved into the Defence portfolio. According to some observers, this was a clear sign that Prime Minister Paul Martin was serious about moving Canada’s external relations more in sync with both our and our North American allies’ needs. A good conspiracy theorist at this point may be tempted to argue that if this does prove the case, it may only be a matter of time before news stories explain the minority Liberals, likely with the covert backing of some Tories, have reached a secret accord on missile defense with Washington. Any such revelations may prompt new headlines, of a variety that announce members of the New Democratic Party, while not surprised, remained in the dark about any such bargaining until it became public.
The 23rd also was of significance. A Department of National Defence press release issued that date explained that Ottawa had finally realized a commitment to the military by moving on the long-overdue purchase of new craft for the Maritime Helicopter Project. Sikorsky, the supplier of the winning bid, “will be awarded two separate, but interrelated contracts. The first contract will cover the acquisition of 28 fully integrated, certified and qualified helicopters with their mission systems installed, and will also include modifications to the 12 Halifax Class ships.” [DND News Release, 23 July 2003, posted at http://www.forces.gc.ca/site/newsroom/view_news_e.asp?id=1415
]. Minister Graham added: “‘The Government of Canada firmly believes that the Sikorsky H92 helicopter represents the right helicopter for the Canadian Forces at the best price for Canadians…The Sikorsky H92 provides a world-class robust, multi-role helicopter that will serve our defence needs for years to come.’” [DND News Release, 23 July 2003, posted at http://www.forces.gc.ca/site/newsroom/view_news_e.asp?id=1415
]. Yet this deal remains shrouded in some controversy. No sooner had the announcement been made than the Globe and Mail
, on 26 July 2004, noted that the government had been “forced to buy Sikorsky” because that company’s rival for the 5-billion dollar contracts, Team Cormorant “had been previously disqualified on technical grounds, sources say.” Reporter Daniel Leblanc continued: “instead of saying that the contract had been awarded to the only company that was still standing, government officials made it seem as if the contract had been a two-way race to the end.” [Globe and Mail
, 26 July 2004, posted at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20040726.wxchoppers26/BNStory/National/
Going on for some time now has been a rift in Canada’s relations with charter ‘Axis-of-Evil’ member Iran. Ties began to run aground last year after Zahra Kazemi, a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen, died in custody in Tehran on 10 July 2003. Kazemi, who had been taking photos outside a Tehran prison during student demonstrations, passed away after suffering a fractured skull and related injuries. The single defendant in the case, secret service agent Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, was cleared of all charges on 24 July 2004 and official Iran now stands by the story that Kazemi’s death was purely accidental, the result of a fall taking place some time after the journalist announced plans to go on a hunger strike. This month Canadian Foreign Affairs signaled that ties with Tehran deteriorated markedly after Ottawa officials were barred from observing the proceedings. Since the announcement of the verdict in what Kazemi’s family in Canada regards as a sham trial at best, Kazemi’s son, Stephan Hachemi, told reporters in Ottawa that this country should sever all relations with the theocracy: “‘The Iranian ambassador has nothing to do in Canada right now…He should be expelled. The embassy should be closed.’” [cited in AP, 28 July 2004, posted at http://www.canada.com/national/story.html?id=0851b8a1-7666-47b1-99d0-93cf05b2a34e
]. At the moment, Canadian officials are said to be considering a wide range of options, including the likelihood of having The Hague take up Kazemi’s case, but seem to have ruled out cutting off diplomatic relations.
Other weighty stories have surfaced, but my intention here is only to point out perhaps the most important and now to draw attention to the one that has slipped off the radar, or maybe has yet to be detected. Namely, while all of these stories were breaking, the Liberals were in charge of the foreign policy agenda. In fact, they remain firmly in charge of all politics in Ottawa. Why this should be a story is simply because this just wasn’t supposed the case, according to what was evolving only a few short months ago. Going into the recent elections, polls showed the Conservatives not only gaining ground, but at one point being in the position of possibly overtaking Paul Martin to form perhaps the slimmest of majorities. But when voting day came, the Liberals found themselves back in power, and the results proved not to be so close after all. Is there a lesson in all this for our Southern Cousins? Do Democrat John Edwards and Republican George Bush have something to learn from Canadian Conservatives? Perhaps, perhaps not, but there are far worse instructors or object lessons than Tory leader Stephen Harper.
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