Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Just Not Ready

They’re going to be teaching units on this commercial in Canadian political science courses for years to come, but for future students who wants a cliff notes version, here are the biggest issues with this infamous campaign ad and the many ways in which the Conservatives shot themselves in the foot…

* the “hiring committee looking at resumes” gimmick already got the Conservatives off on a bad rhetorical foot.  In theory, the ad was supposed to simplify the election to basic terms, asking voters to judge Justin Trudeau by the same basis as one would judge someone applying for a job at their company.  The problem is…doesn’t a hiring committee imply that, y’know, there’s a job vacancy?  Most companies don’t have a person in place they’re satisfied with and go headhunting anyway.  So even the Conservative Party’s own commercials are subtly saying that Stephen Harper has been a subpar “employee.”

* also, this hiring committee is the most focus the Conservatives have given to jobs in nine years.  Hey-o!

* years ago, the Conservatives decided that their best line of attack against Trudeau was that he was an inexperienced semi-airhead who would be completely overmatched as prime minister.  This led to literally hundreds of attack ads pushing this message, focusing on Trudeau’s “lack” of job experience as “only” a former teacher (which also had the side effect of once again throwing teachers, a noted Conservative enemy, under the bus), taking single sentences out of context from larger speeches that purportedly showed Trudeau making naive statements (i.e. “the budget will balance itself”) or even the goofier soft-focus ads trying to paint him as a celebrity running on his family name.  Let’s pause on that family name point for a second.  The vast majority of Conservative attack ads didn’t go after Justin Trudeau — they went after “Justin,” often omitting his last name entirely.  It was a branding exercise meant to again infantilize a grown man, and also to separate him from the Trudeau legacy (which obviously still resonated with voters in Quebec and Ontario).

Now, the Conservatives may have realized that year after year of attack ads would perhaps come off as harsh, so in trying to either somewhat soften their message or deliver a patronizing back-handed compliment, they undermined their entire line of questioning.  Trudeau wasn’t “just not capable of being PM,” but rather “just not ready.”  If you’re cooking a roast and it’s “just not ready,” that means it WILL be ready at some point in the future, it’s just a matter of when it fits your taste.

As we saw, Canada was clearly eager to get the dinner table.  The Liberals cannily turned the “not ready” message around in their own advertising, so the election essentially became a referendum on whether or not Justin Trudeau was capable.  (Others have also noted that the fact that Harper still had to rely primarily on anti-opponent messaging rather than run on his own record after NINE YEARS as prime minister might’ve also done quite a bit to undermine voter confidence.)

I kind of roll my eyes a bit at the “Canada’s natural party” line about the Liberals, yet there may be at least something to it.  Harper rose to power by catching the Liberal Party in a downswing when they had a) Paul Martin stuck holding the bag after years of Jean Chretien-centric scandals, when Chretien himself was teflon in voters’ eyes, b) consecutive party leaders in Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff who were, frankly, total stiffs in voters’ eyes and c) Jack Layton as the opponent on the left, as Layton’s personal popularity (not, markedly, the popularity of the NDP as a whole) split the left-leaning electorate to such as extent that Harper and the united Conservative Party even snuck a majority in 2011 despite three-fifths of the country hating their guts. 

This election, however, the Liberals put forward a leader who wasn’t a stiff.  Ironically, the Conservatives had lowered the bar for Trudeau’s ability so much via those attack ads that he was able to easily exceed expectations in debates, interviews, speeches, etc.  Once voters saw that he wasn’t nearly the dupe portrayed in the Conservatives’ commercials, he won a lot of people over.

Time will tell if Trudeau will prove to be an effective prime minister, or if it will become apparent that he was only elected by dint of “not being Stephen Harper.”  I guess those people on the hiring committee probably should’ve put more thought into what their bosses (i.e. the Canadian people) thought about the candidates.

Also, I can’t help but think that Canadians voted Liberal in part because they were SO ALL-FIRING SICK of these commercials running ad nauseam for years.  Flooding the airwaves can work, but it can also lead to soaking wet and angry voters wanting to punish those who busted the pipes.

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