The familiar voice at the other end of the line sounded amused.
“They’re making fun of the way I look and sound, again,” he says, barely able to contain his delight. “I love it when they underestimate me.”
The voice belonged to the Right Honourable Jean Chretien, naturally, and the call had come in early fall of 2000.
For the ruling Liberal Party, it was an uncertain time. Rumours were circulating that finance minister Paul Martin was not going to run again. Newspaper baron Conrad Black was threatening to use his newspaper chain to punish Chretien for denying him a knighthood. Meanwhile, the nascent Canadian Alliance was surging in the polls, and some of the Grit caucus members were grumbling that Chretien should resign.
But Chretien was undeterred. For nearly 40 years, his opponents had mocked his looks, his language skills, and his mental acuity. For years, he had been wallpapering his home with his political obituaries. And, for years, he kept winning.
It happened again in 2000 – when he ignored all of our advice, and called an election, right after Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day had dared him to.
He captured more seats than he did in the previous election, in 1997.
Surveying the political landscape in this, the first week of Election 2011, I’m reminded of that “chit chat,” as Chretien refers to his telephone calls to friends.
Thus, my pet theory: There is a great, big paradox at the centre of the Conservative Party’s multiple-million-dollar effort to defame Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. That paradox is this: The reason why the Cons are ahead is because of their attack ad campaign targeting the Grit boss.
And the reason why they will slip behind – around the time of the televised leaders’ debates – is because of that selfsame ad campaign.
The 2009 “Just Visiting” ads were designed to depict the newly minted Liberal leader as a space alien, and were wildly successful. They defined Ignatieff before he could get a chance to define himself.
The 2011 “He didn’t come back for you” campaign – which to me sounds like a line from a bad romantic comedy – cost about as much, $3 million. It was aimed at finishing the job, and it arguably did that.
But here’s the problem with both Conservative ad campaigns – and, by extension, the problem with Harper and his Conservative Party, too: They overstated their case. They exaggerated. They went further than they needed to.
Historically, the leaders’ TV debates are when the vast majority of voters finally tune in to the campaign. Voters tune in to check out the job applicants, and to listen to what they have to say.
What they will see in Ignatieff is what he is: An intelligent, thoughtful man who loves his country and thinks he has something to offer.
What they will
not see is the loathsome, self-obsessed, effete foreigner the Cons’ ads have depicted. And they will say: “Oh, Ignatieff’s not as bad as Harper made him out to be. They exaggerated. He seems OK to me. Looks like a prime minister, too.”
That’s what’s going to happen, guaranteed. And it means a Conservative majority ain’t going to happen, either.
Ask Chretien. He knows.
- Kinsella will appear regularly on Sun News Network and blogs at warrenkinsella.com