Monday, January 29, 2007

The Swiftboating of Stéphane Dion

I am not certain how effective or persuasive the Conservative ads directed at Stéphane Dion are or will be, but then they are not aimed at me. They are directed at establishing a public impression of the man before Canadians have had time independently to establish firm views.

However, I am certain of the genesis of the strategy. Its inspiration is pure Karl Rove, the George Bush operative, who was behind the attacks on John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for President, made in a series of defamatory ads sponsored by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – with no official ties to Rove, but lots of connections, another Rove trademark.

The tactics are well described on the web site of the makers of the documentary Bush’s Brain:

Our film, BUSH'S BRAIN, is a primer on how Karl Rove operates. If you want to understand what happened in the elections of 2000 and 2004, you should see our film. If you want to know what will probably happen this fall, you must see our film.

For those who saw BUSH'S BRAIN, the Swift Boat Ads came as no surprise. They were vintage Rove. You attack your opponent's strength, not his weakness. And you cast deep shadows of doubt -- which can't be refuted in time for the election.

The same technique was used in the 2000 primary election against Senator John McCain. Rove turned McCain's heroic ordeal as a prisoner of war into a liability. Because of his years of imprisonment, McCain was said to be "mentally unfit" to be president. Sound familiar?

Familiar indeed! This is the exact playbook being used now against Dion – attacking his reputation for integrity and strong support for the environment. And given its odious but effective history, the Liberals should not underestimate its potential. There is more about Rove and his tactics in this Atlantic Monthly article by Josh Green from 2004, for example this paragraph:

Some of Rove's darker tactics cut even closer to the bone. One constant throughout his career is the prevalence of whisper campaigns against opponents. The 2000 primary campaign, for example, featured a widely disseminated rumor that John McCain, tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, had betrayed his country under interrogation and been rendered mentally unfit for office. More often a Rove campaign questions an opponent's sexual orientation. Bush's 1994 race against Ann Richards featured a rumor that she was a lesbian, along with a rare instance of such a tactic's making it into the public record—when a regional chairman of the Bush campaign allowed himself, perhaps inadvertently, to be quoted criticizing Richards for "appointing avowed homosexual activists" to state jobs.

You see the tactics at work in the ads – attacks on Dion’s environmental record, insinuations of Liberal corruption, etc. There may be more to come.

The Liberals need to hit back fast and hard but their response so far has been weak.

Other parties such as the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens plus the media should join in denouncing this loathsome import from U.S. political culture. They should all demand that the Conservatives drop the ads, and instead turn the air time over to ads that will raise awareness of global warming and offer practical advice on how to do something about it - something the Conservatives in other moments profess to care about. Let them put their party's money where their mouth is.

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