02.16.2012 11:56 AM

The personal is not political

Here’s what I wrote in The War Room:

[Opposition research] doesn’t mean prying into [a political opponent’s] personal life; if you do that, looking for dirt, it says more about you than it does about your opponent.


When getting tough with an opponent — in paid media (with advertisements) or in earned media (with a pithy quote) — there are three rules you must always observe. One, the critical statement of fact you are making about your opponent has to be scrupulously accurate. No ifs, ands, or buts. Check it a dozen times, then check it again. Two, the allegation you are making must be an even-handed take on the facts — that is, it can’t be so wildly out of context that it offends people’s sense of fairness. It should heap ridicule on an opponent, not invite it against you. Three, the critical statement must be on the public record — what is sometimes called “quotes and votes.” Nothing about a person’s personal life.


Most of the time, opposition research focuses upon a politician’s public life — the votes he or she made in the legislature, the curriculum vitae he or she bragged about, the travel costs he or she passed along to the taxpayer. Few folks would argue that an opponent’s public record should be exempt from scrutiny. It is one of the main ways, and sometimes the only way, voters can make informed choices on Election Day. A louder debate, naturally, rages about the ethicality of probing a politician’s personal life. Is it fair to publicize long-ago bounced cheques, or drug use, or draft dodging? Is it right? As a rule, and as I’ve said before, I don’t like it.


[Carville] got on TV and told the truth about what was really going on: namely, that the Republicans and the Clinton-hating conservative media were trying to turn the personal into the political, trying to transform sex into an impeachable offence. Throughout this period, I observed what Carville was doing very carefully. I took notes, even. His handle-scandal strategy worked — and the proof of that was found in polling. The vast majority of Americans agreed with the essence of what Carville was saying. At the height of the scandal, a Pew Research Centre poll found that, even among Republicans, only 36 percent saw the controversy as very important, and only 33 percent were following it very closely. Clinton’s approval ratings went up, not down.

And so on.

I recall one day in the fall of 2009 when those of us who were assisting Michael Ignatieff heard a rumour about the personal life of a prominent Conservative politician. I and others spoke to Ignatieff about it. He said to us, with fire in his eyes: “If any member of my staff – anyone – is found to be circulating this crap, they will be fired immediately. Am I clear?”

That was the right and ethical position to take. Fight your opponents aggressively, for sure: that has always been my credo. But leave spouses and children out of it. It’s not fair to them. And it reflects badly on you.

Geoff Hall and Jordan Owens, former Ignatieff staffers, are you listening?


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    Damian says:

    Generally, I agree. It looks bad. However, would you say there is an exception to this when the person question brings their own personal life into the public? E.g. Pointing out the hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich extolling the sanctity of marriage? Will it backfire even in this kind of circumstance?

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      The Other Jim says:

      Rob Ford is a perfect example of how this type of stuff can backfire.

      During the last Toronto mayoralty campaign, revelations of Ford’s personal “issues” and reminders of old stories about questionable behaviour were reported on an almost daily basis. Even a fraction of what was reported really should have convinced any rational voter that Ford was not suitable for the chains of office, but what happened? He seemed to gain popularity with every new story and cruised to victory.

      Several people in the other thread have referred to the hatchet job that the Tories did to Michael Ignatieff and tried to use that as justification (or proof that this sort of stuff works). Those arguments miss a key point. The tarring of Ignatieff worked because the Tories were able to paint a negative picture of what Ignatieff would be like as Prime Minister (I do realize that there were some slurs directed towards his wife but those were mostly unnoticed by the voting public and media). The selectively included some personal attacks/info, but all as part of a greater strategy to “Brand Iggy” as unfit to lead the country. Stuff like Vikileaks (or what occurred with Newt Gingrich prior to the North Carolina primary) just come off as attempts to embarrass a political opponent (without regard to the privacy of third-parties like Toews’ ex-wife) rather than any real political strategy.

      Right or wrong, modern voters do not seem to believe that being a scumbag in real life has much to do with an individual’s suitability to hold office, so why bother dragging families through the mud?

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      Jason Hickman says:

      Well, that’s an interesting question. How far does the politician have to bring “their own personal life into the public” in order to have that personal life become fair game?

      For instance: let’s say a candidate doesn’t run on a social-conservative-style family-values platform, but he has a wife who has campaigned with him and on his behalf, and the husband has said, in public at one point or another, how much he values her support, he couldn’t do it without her, etc, etc. Has this politician’s wife been brought “into the public” enough to make it fair game if it turns out one has been cheating on the other? Because I’ve seen and been involved in more than a few campaigns, and EVERY candidate I’ve seen close-up who is married or in some long-term relationship has had his/her partner involved, at least to that extent.

      See what I mean? Those slopes can get awfully slippery sometimes.

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    Harrison Jordan says:

    Has anyone called you the James Carville of Canada?

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      Warren says:

      Only if they need glasses. I’m much better looking, but poorer.

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        Cynical says:

        More hair, for sure.

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        Michael says:

        Would you trade your good looks for his money?

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    smelter rat says:

    “If any member of my staff – anyone – is found to be circulating this crap, they will be fired immediately. Am I clear?”

    I understand your point. Ignatieff took the honorable path, for sure…but where did that get him?

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    Cam Prymak says:

    Here’s the proof you’re following that single rule.

    One can’t always compare the medical profession, especially a one-on-one, patient-physician relationship with the political arena. Your dad, like all of our best physicians, took the time to understand the history of each patient and develop a plan to wellness with what he was given. He worked those miracles one patient at a time.

    You’ve chosen a different path and to work on a big canvas. But the Law, with its rules, is adversarial by nature and politics is far worse. There are fewer rules and the standards seem to be getting lower each decade.

    Your patient could be a politician and his career but it could also be construed as a city or a country. When you exhort others to follow these simple rules you make this country much better, much healthier.

    So the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

    The Doctor is in.

    Take, um, your pick.

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    Murdoch says:

    Speaking on behalf of the Canadian voting public, as I often do, I think pulling families into a political shit storm, is interpreted by most of us as an act of desperation and an example of narcississm and megalomania from people who will make or are poor leaders.

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    wsam says:

    Yeah. It sucks that his personal failings have become public. And nobody is blameless and everybody makes mistakes. But his case is specially ironic. I mean. Didn’t Vic Toews get into politics in order to prevent homosexuals from getting married. Didn’t he frame his opposition to gay mariage as necessary in order to save the august institution of marriage?

    I guess audultry is not a threat to marriage.

    Like most social conservatives, the man is a total hypocrite. However, it is the policies he advocates which are the real problem, not the low moral standards with which he conducts his personal life (most of our politicians have been possessed of dubious morality).

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      The Other Jim says:

      “Like most social conservatives, the man is a total hypocrite. ”

      What a load of unsubstantiated crap.

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        Jason King says:

        “What a load of unsubstantiated crap.”

        I hope you’d be just as vigourous when it comes to blanket statements about “leftists”

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          The Other Jim says:

          I try to be, but there’s rarely much point in responding to the red meat crowd. Replying to blanket statements on most right-wing blogs just generates additional screaming about “Lieberals” and “Leftards”. This blog, however, offers intelligent debate and insightful commentary from both the host and the visitors.

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            Warren says:


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            Jason King says:

            Cool Jim. Im glad you see it that way.

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            The Other Jim says:

            @Gord – I’ve had a few run-ins with Scott. I’m not a fan of his style (he’s too quick to ascribe nefarious purposes to those who disagree with him), but he is willing to debate you on the issues rather than just shout you down.

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            Jason King says:

            Gord, give me a break. That list you’ve cited is incomplete without you. After all it was barely a fortnight that you had a comment removed and noted for its libellous content. I know you see it as the “truth” but it’s the way it was perceived and lessens your critique of others by its hypocrisy.

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            Jason King says:

            Well Gord, considering Warren is a lawyer I’ll take his word for law and yours for insurance.

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    fred says:

    We will see how your moral stance holds up when they get hold of your personal communications and the jackbooters knock on
    your door in the middle of the night. If your life isn’t impeccable and your bullshit image can’t stand the light of reality, maybe
    you shouldn’t be in politics.

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    Dana says:

    Geez, if the hypocrisy, arrogance and double standards of every person was exposed…maybe we could evolve a more realistic, less sanctimonious paradigm for human morality and ethics.

    Nah, why would we want to do that?

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    jack says:

    I agree on the premise, but when the other side is effective at using it, you cannot ignore it. While many say its a race to the bottom, by not doing what the others do, you may be left on moral high ground with just over 30 members of parliament. The old days are gone. Its a tool and needs to be used if necessary and using certain procedures. Maybe a personal salvo by Ignatieff would have had the cons back off of attacks on him, but he didnt do it.

    The digital world has changed the way people get and respond to news. Its not always positive but you have to work with it.

    Its not about not using personal info, its about how, when and with an objective in mind. Use it sparingly, yes. But recognize that its a tool and sometimes you may need to use it, if only to show that you have info and are willing to use it. Otherwise you will get stomped on.

    Its how you respond to bullies and Harper is one.

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      Michael says:

      In the last presidential election Barrack Obama chose not to stoop to the level of what the Republicans had done to Gore and Kerry. A lot of people told him he wouldn’t win unless he did, but instead he chose a positive message.

      I think he did alright in that election. 😉

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    The Other Jim says:

    Interestingly, the National Post is reporting that Vikileaks has now moved on to Toew’s expenses as well as public quotes that he’s made (mostly regarding same-sex marriage). Does this change anyone’s opinions or feelings on the matter?

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      Brammer says:

      Not one bit.

      Toews just happens to be the unfortunate frontman on this latest episode in the dismantling of my Canada.

      Harper tossing out any remnants of parliamentary convention, Flaherty screwing with my pension, Baird tearing apart any semblance of balance that Canada used to have in international affairs, Toews condoning torture, and now taking away my privacy.

      I’ve voted Progressive Conservative, Liberal, NDP, and even the National Party (Where are you Mel?) I respect anyone who runs for office and the sacrifices they make. Hell, I even think the pension they get is fair.

      Harper and his crew of nasties just piss me off so much I feel they deserve everything they get.

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        Tim Sullivan says:

        Unlike Brammer, I have not voted PC or National Party, but I once voted for a party other than Liberal. That said, Brammer’s position is entirely consistent with my view. It is unfortunate when candidates and politicians bring up their personal lives, bring their kids on stage etc. I really do not like when the political becomes the personal. However, some bring it on themselves. The US political culture from my view meshes the two all-to-often. Their president lives in his office! His wife has her own office and is expected to perform some public role without remuneration! But when clowns like Gary Hart say to follow me, and he is followed to his mistress’ house, he gets what he deserved.

        The cure for any of this is to be honest. I don’t mean that a politician cannot account for nuance in policy, change one’s mind on a policy given new facts or as a democratic response to public will as the politician perceives it. I mean, stop lying about facts. Clement should not have lied about what the Chief Statistician said about cancelling the census. Harper lied about the presence of flags at the coalition press conference. Bernier lied about how many complaints he received about the census.

        Also, those who present themselves for public office should do so with an accurate view of what they are and what their values are, as malleable as those sometimes should be. If I am Larry Craig, going off on all directions against homosexuals, I should probably not try cruising for guys in a public washroom. If I a Gingrich, I should not spout off about the sanctity of marriage when I left two wives who were sick, and had affairs. I have trouble with him spouting off how Catholic he is, given he is divorced.

        Politicians who change their views should be expected and is a reasonable product of democratic discourse and debate. The term “flip-flopper” should be excised from political discourse. However, for Toews to exit the House and tell the interviewer he did not say that opponents to C-30 sided with pornographers when clearly he had, he deserves to be ridiculed. What he should have said instead of lying is “I went too far and reasonable people can disagree on a number of important public issues, and this is one of them.” Instead he disassociated himself from his comments made moments earlier.

        Fair and honest discourse is what we need. We get that when we debate public issues with evidence. Nastiness, name-calling and making the political personal is what we get when debates are black and white and ideological. Harper and his style, if not his ideology, is dangerous to the Canada I know and love.

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    wsam says:

    I guess I am a monster for noting the irony in Vic Toews, moral crusader, being exposed for cheating on his wife (not that it was much of a secret). I think it is an interesting question. Should Senator Craig in the US have been outed for seeking sex in an airport washroom. He was a strong advocate for social conservative values and had spoken against extending marriage to homosexuals. He was elected because of his social conservatism. Which was a sham. Just like Vic Towes — who seeks further intrusion of the state into the bedrooms of the nation (review his legislative record).

    Should his opponents have been quiet about him trying to enforce values and standards on others which he himself did not, or could not, follow. Should they have remained silent about his hypocracy.

    Social Conservative politicians like Toews campaign on the strength of their moral values, in the public persona they create they position those values as central to who they are and why they are in politics. This is a big way they attract people to vote for them.

    Is it okay to attack Rob Ford for knowing nothing about business and being a terrible manager when his campaign is based on he and his brother claims of having excellent business credentials and firm management style.

    In the last election I had several Tories whisper to me about how Iggy had treated his mother badly. They could not stand him for what they said was his hypocracy. It was comical because I already knew about it and Iggys subsequent feelings of guilt, having read about it in one of his books.

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    fred says:

    This is my favourite yahoo post today:
    “Jason Sheffield • 1 hour 26 minutes agoReport Abuse
    LOL I think Herr Harptard is finally realizing that we are NOT stupid. We are NOT going to live in a police state. And we are NOT going to give him and his jackbooted hillbillies another chance to destroy this country.”

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    fred says:

    What’s the next trial ballon to be floated by these clowns? We need a Minister of Public Safety to save us from Toews.

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    Enough Harper says:

    As someone who has had his anti-Harper email account breached three times, once apparently by some sort of official request (my personal account was also accessed at the same time), my sympathy for Mr Toews is limited.

    The CPC talk about values a lot. Family values. Conservative values. Canadian values. The reason that a Republican’s foot tapping in the bathroom is a story (aside from being arrested) is the hypocrisy involved. So too is this the case with Mr Toews. Having a record of an affair with a much younger woman, a baby-sitter, while proposing a ‘Wont someone please think of the children’ Act is extreme hypocrisy. Couple that with a party that is trying to tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, telling transgendered people they are not allowed to fly (and not taking easy steps to correct this problem) etc, and then saying that they are willing to enact a law that will weaken or violate Charter protections in section 8, well, that’s one big pile of shit they are standing on while claiming violations of privacy. And I’d argue the violations of privacy and freedom they have willingly and deliberately enacted far outstrip the personal embarrassment of one man.

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      nic coivert says:


      Pandora’s box has creaked open, Canadian politics will never be the same.

      Ultimately this will be Harper’s legacy, total ruthlessness. The Carthage impulse.

      Besides, Toews deserves nothing.

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      Windsurfer says:

      The Con Parthenon will not fall because their base deserts them. That base is brain-dead and would vote for a gelded rooster if it ran as a Con in their riding.

      This edifice will fall because the ROC, the 70%, finally wakes up.

      Miraculously, in small increments, it’s happening as people take note of these CroMagnons.

      Tell a friend.

      Yours truly
      Piltdown Man

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        smelter rat says:

        You are obviously familiar with my riding! (Brandon-Souris)

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        The Other Jim says:

        In some ridings, your gelded rooster would be an upgrade!

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    Jason King says:

    Apparently its been traced to a House of Commons ip address


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    Jerome Bastien says:

    Good on you WK, for calling out your own side. That’s two days in a row where Im very impressed by your blog’s content, namely this, and your post about your father and how you find it hard to live up to his standards. That’s not quite enough for me to vote Liberal but it definitely increased the respect I have for you. Keep it up.

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    mrburnsns says:

    C30 is complete garbage, and there is no way someone like Vic Toews should have ever been in any elected office, let alone been a Crown.

    But given what @vikileaks30 is putting out today this is almost a different style of attack that’s more familiar in the U.S. – you wait for a person to do something stupid enough to get them in the news, and you just drag the person through the mud for weeks until the recipient (or a member of their family) is mentally broken, bankrupt or sent to jail. It’s the sustained attack that the public latches onto – they seem to really enjoy seeing someone in positions of power reduced to nothing.

    It didn’t work with Clinton or Gingrich, but sadly it does work for lesser figures. The problem is that the potency of this tactic dissuades many from running for office here in the U.S. – simply because they don’t want to expose themselves or their families to something like this. So while minor skirmishes like this one might be won, the end result of these types of tactics becomes a full war room supporting a low-quality candidate that has no business running a country.

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    nic coivert says:

    Toews crossed his own moral line.

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    A.bo says:

    Clinton was aquitted.

    The Harper government was found in contempt of Parliament – a first in Commonwealth history.

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      Warren says:

      No, he was convicted in the House.

      And defeating Harper on contempt finding really worked out, didn’t it?

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        que sera sera says:

        Actually, it formally exposed the PM as having total contempt for Canadians and their governing institutions including the office of the PM.

        It also exposed the fact that his base and his advertising budget cared little for democracy and upholding Canadian Parliamentary values, traditions or the institution itself.

        So yes it “worked out” in the sense that exactly what Canadians and the LPC/NDP need to know about Harper & his cabal he has taught them himself, every step of the way. What I find incredulous is that the LPC/NDP have trouble believing it & keep expecting some sort of “code of honor” or “respect” to miraculous appear in the mind set and actions of what quite clearly is a vindictive thug and misanthropic bully.

        What you choose to do with this knowledge while mourning the non-invasion of Toews (public record in Manitoba) non-privacy is another thing. It is quite one thing when citizens in a social media forum go after a MP, it is quite another when a PM and a Cabinet Minister go after citizens.

        In my view politics is not a zero sum game.

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        que sera sera says:

        Only when the House of Commons decisions meet his Lordship’s approval are the decisions given the gravitas they warrant, otherwise they are “frivolous political grandstanding”.

        Interesting planet some Conservatives live on.

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        Tim Sullivan says:

        The vote had to happen. The Cons had to be called-out. No one should have stayed in their seat during that vote to find the Cons in contempt.

        As a political strategy, it was not scuessful. There was no other right thing to do, however.

        It is unfortunate that citizens were not paying attention, or more sadly, didn’t care. It was also unfortunate that Canadians don’t know, or seem to care, how Parliament works.

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    A.bo says:

    No, he was aquitted by the Senate.

    Re: Contempt. I wouldn’t have let it slide either.

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    Michael S says:

    “And defeating Harper on contempt finding really worked out, didn’t it?”
    no, but was it the right thing to do? definitely…

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    A.bo says:

    Shall I now infer that anonymous declarations are viewed to hold less value on the topic of ethics?

    I post anonymously because I can, and find it less aggravating when dealing with ‘unknowns’ while trying contribute with measured comments.

    It’s your house and I thank you for letting me visit but I’m not a great fan of some of your other guest’s ideologies. I prefer to protect myself as long as I chose not to enter the Political arena full bore. If that doesn’t cut it here I won’t hesitate to stop posting.

    You afterall have the option to moderate.

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      Tim Sullivan says:

      Anonnymous political opinions are less valid because their sources cannot be scrutinized. The citation of sources lends credibility to the facts and opinions espoused.

      We hide behind anonymity for fear of reprisals and ad hominem attacks. Ad hominems are not valid refutations or criticism of an opinion.

      The Conservatives’ technique of attacking the character of their opponents is what debases debate and democracy. Unfortunately, anonymity is the coping mechanism in the face of such a response, and sometimes a defence to such a response (ie: You can’t call me a pedophile / foreign agitator / immigrant / lawyer / Liberal if you don’t know who I am”) However, it does not enhance debate. It propagates it without enlightenment. It keeps the people dumb.

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    Anne Peterson says:

    You want to jail our children, you want to snoop into our lives, you want to label us extremists and set CSIS and the police on us when we are persuing what we think is right, want to condone torture on our behalf, then better be prepared to let us see who YOU really are and if you have a moral right to judge the rest of us. You don’t.

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      que sera sera says:

      Very well said.

      It is becoming brutally obvious that this particular government’s mandate to govern has been co-opted and perverted by its obsession with criminalizing Canadians for exercising their democratic obligations and rights.

      Why this hasn’t become an ad for prime time is beyond me.

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    Jim Hanna says:

    Bill C30 is a horrendous piece of legislation, full stop, and it opens a barn size door into intrusions into the private lives of Canadians.

    And from a government that got rid of the long form census, and the long gun registry, on privacy concerns, is it hypocritical? Absolutely.

    BUT. As misquided I think this legislation is, do I think that Toews is putting it forward so that he can read my email to my son about his missing violin class? Or my Valentine email to my wife? Or anyting? Not at all. He’s wrong, but he thinks he’s making Canadians safer from a certain form of activity. He’s tragically wrong, in that these measures destroy our privacy and freedom more than they protect anyone. But does he mean to do society harm? I can’t say that. And whatever has happened in his personal life…doesn’t belong on any public forum. Warren is absolutely and unconditional right on this one.

    Don’t forget that there are equally big skelatons lurking in Liberal and NDP closets; and some of the stories don’t make the participants look any better than Toews. Canadian journalism used to be above t his sort of gutter news; no one can control Twitter (nor should they) but I hope that the pros don’t feel the need to become pooper scoopers.

    And don’t get me wrong, I can’t think of one single major initiative that this government has brougnt forward that I wouldn’t want reversed as quickly as possible, if the damage wasn’t too severe…but an honest disagreement about policy and direction, is no reason to sink to this.

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    wsam says:

    I post anonymously because I am one of the most famous people in the world.

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    Anne Peterson says:

    How a person leads their personal life is indicative of their ethics and their character. If they want to represent us in parliament we have a right to know what kind of people they are. Stay out of that particular spotlight and I don’t care how you live your life. I remember how Margaret Trudeau was pursued by the media. Seems some are supposed to be protected from such things and others not.

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    dave says:

    This kind of legislation, to me, enables authorities to go after individuals. Some individual could be a target of just one Cabinet Minister, of the Cabinet, of a few cops, and they can go fishing for anything they can get on that particular person…with impunity. I tdoes not have to do with kid porn, terroris, drugs, or any such thing, …it could be about someone who has said something the government, or some bigshot, figures is irritating, so they use this legislation to help in ‘getting’ the individual.
    We’ve seen this government take down individuals; we know how the trash talk that justified taking that person down has held on. We have seen provincial governments do the same. I live in BC, dnwe have seen this kind of thing a lot at he highest levels in our province.
    We have given our various cop and secret police (including JTFII) organizations a lot of power already in Canada. We should be real careful about this kindof stuff.

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