Musings —03.30.2013 10:30 PM—
“I will not go negative.”
Justin Trudeau had been warming up to saying those words for a few minutes, as he sat before a sold-out crowd of hundreds at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel.
And then he finally uttered those words.
He will not go negative.
At a table near where I was sitting, a former Liberal cabinet minister, a former senior adviser to a former leader and assorted party luminaries exhaled as one. “Jesus Christ,” one hissed. “Did he actually just say that?”
He did, he did. Justin Trudeau — the guy who everyone expects to become the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada next month — just told everyone that he won’t use negative ads against his political opponents.
At the back of the room, the media furiously scribbled away in their notebooks. This was news.
And so, later on that day, they reported Trudeau’s statement that way.
Trudeau takes aim at negative politics, read the Toronto Star’s headline.
“Yes, there are a lot of fault lines we can play up to divide this country,” the Star quoted the Montreal MP as saying. “But for me, it’s much more interesting to look for those common values that define Canadian identity.”
Global News reported likewise: “Trudeau declared he would ‘not go negative’ in any election campaign if he becomes party leader.” They went on: “Trudeau said he fully expected the Tories to come up with vicious attack ads after the Liberals choose their leader, because ‘that is what they do.’”
Now, as you may have surmised, a few of us think Justin Trudeau has made a really big mistake here.
If anyone has any doubts about that, they can ask Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff, who learned the lessons of modern politics the hard way.
Both men said they wouldn’t “go negative,” too. And both paid for it with their political lives.
At a speech he gave at York University a year ago, a defeated Ignatieff admitted as much. He tried to be a nice guy, he said. But, likening politics to boxing, he said he had learned to “get your (fist) in first.”
Dion, meanwhile, was blunter in a statement he made after the 2008 election campaign.
“I failed,” he said, simply. He needed to counter the Conservatives’ negative ad barrage, and he didn’t. The anti-Dion attack ads were, he said, highly “effective.”
And those ads defeated him.
So, a few of us who like and admire Justin Trudeau would like to ask him, what the hell were you thinking?
If there is anything the Liberal Party should have learned in the past decade or so — anything at all — it is that you don’t show up to a gunfight with a knife. You don’t turn the other cheek, over and over.
And you don’t ever, ever say you won’t “go negative.”
It’s not “negative” to tell the truth about your opponent, as he or she is seeking high public office. Telling the truth about their public record — their votes, their quotes, their expenditures and missteps — isn’t “negative.” In a democracy, it’s the right and proper thing to do.
It’s your job, in fact.
After his talk — in which Justin Trudeau placed his head on the metaphorical chopping block and dared Stephen Harper to swing the same bloody axe he used on Dion and Ignatieff — I spoke with one of Trudeau’s confidantes. This person is one of the smartest players in Canadian politics.
“What the hell did you guys just do?” I asked this person. “You should’ve talked to Dion and Ignatieff before making that kind of a promise.”
“Don’t worry,” said the player, smiling. “This guy’s a fighter. He will fight.”
Liberals hope so.
Otherwise, Justin Trudeau’s been knocked out before he even gets in the ring.