"That's kind of the sentiment we're getting at"

People in politics have no idea how loathsome they sound

When people in politics talk about what they do — when they boast about it, as they do almost compulsively — they really have no idea how loathsome they sound:

Halfway through the 2011 campaign, a Conservative war room operative sat down in an Ottawa pub to discuss the party’s entire strategy against Ignatieff.

“They say that we try to portray Ignatieff in our ads and so on as a weak and flailing professor,” the war room staffer said. “No, that’s how we portrayed Dion. Dion was weak, you know, Dion was ‘not a leader.’ We’ve never said Michael Ignatieff isn’t a leader. We’ve never called him weak. And we’ve never called him a flip-flopper. Even when he changes his mind, we don’t say he’s a flip-flopper. Michael Ignatieff, in our narrative, is a political opportunist who is calculating, who will do and say anything to get elected.

“He’s a schemer. When he says one thing and then he changes his mind the next week, it’s not because he’s indecisive and a flip-flopper. It’s because he’s an opportunist who will say different things to different people. I don’t think we’ve even used the phrase, even internally, ‘He’s a malicious human being.’ But that’s kind of the sentiment we’re getting at. With Dion, we were trying to portray him as weak. You can’t trust him to lead us out of the economic recovery because he’s a weak man. With Ignatieff, it’s ‘He’s a bad man,’ right? He’s someone you don’t want your daughter to marry, right?”

The “strategy” of the Conservative party in this election was to spend millions of dollars — your money and mine, most of it — to portray the leader of the Liberal party as not just an “opportunist” and a “schemer,” but a “malicious human being,” a “bad man”. This is the same man for whom the Prime Minister in his election night victory speech claimed to have only the highest regard.

I don’t want to weep too many tears for the Liberals. They did much the same to Conservative leaders in the past — recall the ridicule of Stockwell Day’s religious beliefs in 2000, the fear campaigns of ’04 and ’06, of which the late campaign’s evocation of Stephen Harper’s desire for “absolute power” was a pale echo. But I can’t recall anything on this scale, or this vicious.

There are things we can do, consistent with freedom of speech, to prevent this in future. We can take away the public funds that subsidize this garbage. And we can require that party leaders voice their own ads, so that they can not pretend to dissociate themselves from the messages their minions spew.

But ultimately it’s not going to change unless we change the culture of politics: the culture that encourages people to believe it is a fine and good thing to devote their talents to destroying other people’s reputations. As Frank Graves, the Ekos pollster Liberal lobbyist Brian Klunder [Graves was retweeting him] put it on Twitter,

I’m sick of frat house nature of war rooms – thinking it fun to try to ruin lives and careers. People need to grow up.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.