When writing about the 2011 Canadian election, it could be a pretty facile exercise to point to the Conservative candidate, proclaim he's just like his American counterpart (Bush) and then go further and declare that the tactics used as being the same as those used by the oft vilified Karl Rove, aka Bush's Brain. So let's get specific and take a hard look at exactly what is this playbook all about.
First, go on the offensive and establish the public perception of their candidate, define what the major issues of the campaign are and do everything in your power to influence the public perception of the opponent. If you're Stephen Harper, you have spent the last two years two years doing exactly these things. In fact our Prime Minister likes to run vicious attack ads all the time — before, during and after elections. This is a no-brainer for the Tories in that these ads turn voters off depressing turnout at the polls and it delights and energizes his rabid base.
Next from the playbook, attack your opponents strengths. For example, if your opponent is a whip smart university professor who taught at some of the world's finest universities, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the University of California, the University of London and the London School of Economics, then you have to make that sound like a bad thing. Seriously. You have to find a way to demonize that and the Tories certainly gave that a shot with ads that feature ominous tones and insinuate something dark is afoot with people who go to "other" countries to be professors.
Sticking with the playbook, you will want to accuse your opponent of whatever he/she is going to accuse you of (like lusting for power). Harper was, by all accounts, ready to form something quite like a coalition back in 2004, and so opens up this election run by accusing Ignatieff of plotting a "reckless" coalition. Now in all likelihood were Harper in Ignatieff's shoes he would be looking at a coalition if he could not win a majority or even a minority. Pay attention to whatever else they accuse Ignatieff of because it will point to their next move.
The next tactic has yet to be pulled out of the bag of tricks this election but bank on it coming to pass: go negative and then cry foul. Conservatives across North America love to dish out attacks but get kind of weepy when they are the subject of similar ads. At some point during this election Harper will decry all the negative ads the opposition parties are running against him even though he has spent his entire time as PM smearing his opponents whether it was election season or not.
Then there's the big lie, or a whole bunch of little ones so that there are too many to keep track of them all. As Harper talks about how this "unnecessary""election somehow threatens Canada's economic recovery, it would benefit one and all to remember that Harper promised not to call an early election last time out but then quickly turned his back on that promise and called an election more than a year earlier than promised just as the country was entering a recession and a deficit situation. Was that not risky? There are a litany of such reversals by the Harper Tories. Good examples are him swearing he would never tax income trusts, and his complaints about the unaccountability of the unelected Senate to which he has appointed 36 Senators who, it's worth noting, scuttled a couple of private members bills in this last session of Parliament. Then there's ethics problems he said he'd fix, accountability and transparency he said his government would ensure and put a stop to the hiring of lobbyists. None of which came to pass.
There's the appeal to moral values which coincidentally Harper was speaking about to rural Canadians just yesterday, declaring that only the Conservatives understand and share their values. This is clearly meant to divide people along lines of not only urban and rural voters but also along lines of faith. There's the underlying suggestion that somehow all the homo lovers living in the cities are very "different" from them and could never understand what people of faith who live in the country believe.
There's the selling of the leaders persona and so Harper has been imbued with all kinds of characteristics that belie how he has governed. He's been cast as a great leader whose strengths are wisdom, compassion, and his personal warmth (that's why he sings and plays the piano every chance he gets).
The combination of exploiting and demonizing the media is a tried and true tactic. The Harper message is crafted with no details left to chance and if the media wants access to the PM from time to time they had better not complain too loudly about all of his rules like no press scrums, only answering a handful of questions, and being caged. Anytime the media is serving up a Harper or Tory scandal, the Conservatives simply declare that the media is biased and you can't believe what they say in the first place... unless it's good news about the Conservatives of course (the hue and cry over the so-called liberal media continues to this day in the US in spite of all the proof to the contrary).
The last thing I'm going to mention, in this long list that could be subtitled 'how to politically divide and conquer your own country,' is strawmen. You'll recall that during the Bush years there was the constant drumbeat about terrorists around every corner and if they weren't sure to destroy America then gay marriage would. When discussing these strawmen it was also important to misrepresent your opponent's position on whatever issues you're dredging up. You can do this by quoting your opponent out of context or
presenting their beliefs in a form that people will reject. As for the strawmen Harper has given us, why there's the coalition with its' socialists and separatists and liberals, oh my!
If all of this sounds familiar that's because it played on our TV sets for the eight years Bush was in office, and is currently in reruns in the US and here in our own backyard. There's nothing new here but don't discount the effectiveness of such tactics. Without a fourth estate willing to be skeptical and do its' job the public can be sold anything as history teaches us.